daniel silver

Short stories and essays in affirmative ethics. Published irregularly.

Yesterday we took a walk at sunset. South, along the nature strip that runs between the road and the railway line. Towards a gap in the timeless procession of rocky caterpillars that stretch from east to west across the desert. Yeperenye, they’re called, by the Arrente people.

The weather was unusually humid. The sky stuffed with gigantic purple clouds bursting with crimson firelight. A raven searched for crickets in the scant grass by the roadside. Ringnecks perched and busied themselves. Ants scurried by our feet in all directions. The last of the day’s activities. We talked about the toll it takes to care for a world so consumed. Our conversation turned playful, then quiet. Content to witness the horizon eclipse the sun.

In a rut beside the tracks, somewhat concealed, we passed a small camp of first-nations people. A woman looked out from her motorised wheelchair. Another shook the sand from a plastic rug. I imagined them getting into bed uneasily. We exchanged no gestures. No nods or waves. Nothing to acknowledge our being in the same place at the same time.

Up ahead, a man rode towards us on a cheap mountain bike. He was African. Forty eight or nine. Wearing baggy pants and a black polo. His red cap said Coles. His face bore a warped expression, as if he were riding on a flat tire and could ill afford to walk.

I thought of my father. His pale, broad hands. My privilege. His grief and sacrifice. His middle-class anger. The migrant community that kept him afloat when he lost both his parents within two years of leaving them behind to move to this country. I felt shame for ever feeling responsible for my own good fortune.

We turned around at the footbridge. Safely intertwined. The last rays of peach light catching on stray wisps of cloud. We squeezed hands, and kissed. A friend passed on their bike, and waved. Dusk fell by the time we were home.

The next day I read again the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And I tried to imagine a more just Australia. How could it be otherwise?

To reify is to become real, to materialize, to have a dream become viable, to consummate in pursuit. Its associated experience, of reification, is a turbulent confluence of relief, elation, grief, and all things between.

This short essay is about the grief.

Grief is an aspect of emotional life that never fails to surprise the uninitiated. By the uninitiated I mean those for whom a particular event is still only a dream. Its object may be known, but its associated becoming-event has yet to reify in the life of its dreamer.

For example, consider a person who dreams of becoming a parent. For them the child is the object, and the event begins in pregnancy, when the person becomes an expecting-parent. The event moves through birth, when the person becomes a new-parent of an infant, and then through various phases of initiation: new-parent of a toddler, new-parent of an adolescent, new-parent of a teenager etc.

At each stage, the parent experiences their own reification, in parallel with the developing child. Acquiring new faculties, needs and desires.

Often overlooked in this process is that developmental is accompanied by loss. When a parent of an infant becomes the parent of a toddler, the former is lost. Which is why the eyes of parents become moist with tangible grief when they notice their children have grown.

Moreover, having dreamed about what each stage of parenthood might be like, the becoming parent holds an image of the future as a kind of fantasy. But reification invariably reveals something other than expected, in both parent and child, so that in consummating the pursuit of becoming, the person also grieves the death of a dream.

In the parenting example, the object, or the other, is a person. But the same thing happens in relations between people and material objects.

For example, when a person dreams of buying a car, the car is the object. In pursuing that object, the person also pursues becoming person-with-car. The event begins by entering the market, then moves through finding a car, then buying the car, and then through all the various trials and tribulations (initiations) of becoming person-with-car.

At each stage in the person-car relationship there flows a grief for the death of a dream. Grief for the car that was always reliable, that never looked dirty, that never needed new tires. Grief for the person who knew what to do when the engine light was on.

It is worth mentioning too that the more idealistic, romantic or creative a becoming-subject, the more profound their experience of grief is likely to be, because the gap between dream and the real is likely to be vast, and that distance correlates to the measure of grief.

This is not to decry the value of idealism, romantic or creative thinking, but to help such thinkers better understand the immensity of their emotional lives.

A final note on all of this. And perhaps the most important. Because there is an ethical dimension to the process of becoming real in the relational event. I mentioned above that the object of a dream is other to the subject-dreamer, and becoming is a process that occurs in relation to that other. Also that the object, the other, is subject to its own becoming. This is easy to see in the parent-child example. Because while the parent is becoming new-parent of a toddler, the infant is also becoming toddler of a new-parent. Things get a little more abstract in the example of material objects, but still, for example, in the course of becoming person-with-car, the car is becoming car-of-person, and traces of its particular car-person relationship will materialize as transformations in its condition over time.

The ethical dimension here concerns the responsibility of subjects to objects, and in this regard Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of being for the other is instructive (see Marcus, 2008).

In a parent-child relationship, if the parent refuses to accept an initiation, for example by refusing to become parent of a toddler and instead continues to treat the child as an infant, they will trample some aspect in the child’s development. The consequences of this kind of trampling are more pronounced in parent-child relationships where the parent rejects becoming new-parent of an adult, and clings instead to the dream of being parent to a child, thereby avoiding the associated grief, but causing the child to struggle in the process of becoming an adult. To reify their own becoming, the child in this example may grow to resent the parent, compounding the tension, and find themselves fantasizing about severing the relationship altogether. Preferring instead the alternate dream of an absent parent.

Thus derives the ethical imperative to become for the other, and the notion that becoming reified in relation to otherness is an ethical responsibility.

A wagtail attended my great-grandmother’s funeral.

We saw it from inside the modest stone hall where we gathered to attend the first rites of mourning. At the rear of the hall, two large doors opened to the cemetery grounds. A bitumen road lay extended between grassy beds. On the road was the wagtail. Quietly swaying. Inside an old Rabbi recited his prayer. He called on us with the honour of accompanying the coffin to assemble. My brothers, my uncle and cousins. We wheeled the coffin on a metal barrow towards the grave, towards the wagtail, who fluttered, and each time landed further along the way. Behind us nearly fifty people walked politely. My great-grandmother was much admired, and she died in due course. The wagtail was waiting when we reached the grave. Later I learned my mother and grandmother were both aware of its presence. They said the bird bore her spirit. A link between this world and the next. As is the custom, each person in attendance took their turn filling the grave with three shovels full of earth. The first few made thuds, of dirt on wood. The wagtail stayed until the end.

These days I think of her most often as the bird. My great-grandmother the wagtail. After so many years. Occasionally I remember her body. Tiny and frail. By the time she died there was barely a foot from one shoulder to the other, and her chest, which carried the absence of a cancer she survived, was a valley between them. I never saw her legs or feet. She always wore stockings. But I know she travelled a long way. She fled the Pale, landed in the Cape, crossed the Indian. Thousands and thousands of miles, much of it alone. When her husband died she was only halfway. My mother loved her most of all. They were both survivors.

My grandmother is getting smaller now. And my mother. Becoming birds. My grandmother’s spine is bent. She spends her time among fruit trees and shrubs, and a small pond in her garden. She likes to stay put. Maybe a rail. Meanwhile my mother is a little bigger, better fed, her chest was reconstructed so that she carries her scars differently. She likes to walk, and make nests. But I hesitate to think of her as a bird. Only recently did I allow myself to think of her as dying at all. I was flying back from a visit. And the thought of life without her entered my mind in a way I hadn’t known it to do before. Not since I was ten, when I vividly imagined my own non-existence, had I experienced so dizzying a recognition. I felt the world expand and empty all at once. In it she was only a memory. The image of her I carry in my mind was all I could hold, and suddenly it began to glisten. Her laugh grew loud, her smile, the shape of her nose. I thought of my brothers, my dad. I thought of us all in a stone hall scanning for birds.

There’s a mouse in my house. I know because it leaves its little poos by the stovetop. I don’t like the mouse. Because of the little poos. If it weren’t for the little poos I wouldn’t mind if it came and went as it pleased. If it took refuge at the end of a long day. If it scampered in to escape the clutches of a cat. Or heavy rain. Or even only because sometimes outside is too much for the mouse, and inside is where it wants to be. But the poos are disgusting. Strewn indiscriminately, like scattered tic-tacs. Of course nothing could be further from a pellet meant to freshen one’s breath. But mouse poo is uncanny like that. Always in the kitchen. Similar in size and colour to black currents or chocolate sprinkles. Similar enough at least to be in poor taste. Like a practical joke in a vulgar gift shop, next to the fart bombs and plastic flies. Like a spoiled grape. I don’t like the mouse, not because I’m afraid its poo will spoil my food, but because I feel jilted by the mirage. And for that, I have set a trap.

The trap was $4.79 for a pack of two, from the hardware store. The first trap I bought was half the price, from the grocery store. The grocery store was out of the more expensive traps. I set the cheap trap with a small piece of bread rolled in peanut butter, and left it overnight on the stovetop where I found the poos. In the morning there was no bread, and no mouse. I figured the bread was too easy for the mouse to remove, so I re-baited the trap, this time with only peanut butter. But that night the trap was empty again. The game was afoot. I set the trap with cheese, like in the movies. And I imagined the mouse thwarting my efforts, like in the movies. And the next day the cheese was gone. Like in the movies. I cursed the trap for being a cheap piece of plastic squeezed in some foreign factory by the million, designed by an algorithm to reap money from poor people with mice in their houses, and keep the mice fed. I drove to the hardware store, and bought the more expensive, pre-baited trap. This time I read the instructions. They said to set the trap against the wall, where the mouse is likely to run. Not where it poos. Half an hour later the trap cracked into life. I saw it happen. The mouse struggled for ten seconds before it died.

It’s not that I miss the mouse. But I feel forlorn. I have another trap for when it comes back. It always does. The time before this on the trap woke me in the middle of the night. I could hear the mouse squealing. Frozen, I waited for quiet. I thought about going back to sleep. But it seemed wrong to leave a dead body unburied. A body for which I was responsible. It seemed unkind. Eventually I walked to the kitchen and turned on the light. The mouse was dead. I put its body in a plastic bag, which I tied, and threw in the bin outside.

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