The Beauty of Survival

In 2011, images from Japan of walls of water, some 130 feet high, crushing streets, businesses, and homes, scattering SUVs like toys, flooded into the news media. The tsunami five years ago killed 18,000 people and displaced more than 180,000. Those most deeply affected lost family, friends, neighborhoods, workplaces—their entire frame of familiarity wiped away. 

In the aftermath of this tsunami, as well as earlier ones, poems—haikus in particular—were published in newspapers, chronicling Japan’s collective mourning. People poured their shock into the barest handful of words, creating a communal sense of lament, each one a small scrap of a titanic grief. One man, a Buddhist monk and haikuist, described the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami:

Days of disaster

I can never forget

the cold and wet

A woman whose mother died five days following the tsunami wrote this wrenching sentiment:

Mother’s pain

into the spring sea

her last sleep

I find it heartening that in the face of incomprehensible loss, when life was stripped down to its most meager essentials, many entrusted their painful sojourn to an aesthetic creation. I can’t help but think that something within them believed that shaping their sorrow into art was indispensable, that it was precisely what their broken and wounded selves needed to find some semblance of home again.

* * *

How do we decide what to do with our losses? While weeping amid our ruins, why the siren song of the poetic? We’re all looking for how to come alive; we’re all searching for how to survive something, and the better artists implicitly hold space for such longings in their work.

These days, such thoughts are not academic but personal as I contemplate the second anniversary of my mother’s death after a protracted decline from cancer in 2014, living a year longer than the doctor’s most optimistic prognosis. My depression emerged months before she passed when she was fully wheelchair-bound and depressed herself, her personality morphing into someone I couldn’t recognize. I cooked familiar meals, coaxed conversation, found old photo albums—anything to create little islands of comfort that might call her back to us, however briefly, to ease the inevitable, but she was too deeply shuttered inside herself. 

Meanwhile, my 89-year-old father attempted to care for her in their home, assisted—and I use that word loosely—by an assortment of home health aides whose presence she despised. When the ambulance arrived her last day at home to deliver her to the hospice care house, I decided to go with her and held her hand as she lay on the gurney during the jolting ride, the gray branches of March and tired patches of snow ribboning past the window. In that place, she would linger for nine days before completely slipping away. 

This loss collided with others—no tsunami, just my own ten-car pile-up on life’s little highway. For a long while, I sensed, as the Quakers put it, “way closing” at my church of twenty-four years, a place where I was no casual attender but where I had lost the threads of community and mission. A few months after my mother’s death, I left. By early summer, a close friend of twenty years relocated to another state, coinciding with other unfortunate shifts in my already under-resourced relational life. Life was dwindling, constricting to its narrowest possible passage. By July, I felt like a slowly fading Polaroid ghosted to the barest outline of myself.

Teaching done for the summer, I would awake late many mornings, feed the gray cat mewling outside my bedroom door, exercise, shower, dress, and sometime after breakfast find myself returning to my bed, noodling on my iPhone or watching the honeyed light pour through the window, the cat circled at my side, my fingers lightly smoothing the fur on her back. I might lounge until mid-afternoon or later, locked in my palpable inertia, sun and shadow seeping into the beige carpet. I was stultified, desolate, strangled by silence and loneliness.

I wrote a little as my mind allowed, pruning sentences and cobbling together a few phrases here and there for the book of essays I'd started years before, but my voice was mostly muted. I padded through the rooms of my home, aimless, too full of feeling to feel, sad and embarrassed by my poor output. 

* * *

Over the course of that difficult summer, I started one new piece of writing, a short, in-the-moment essay—my manuscript has several—about a small book given to me by my spiritual director in the wake of my loss. The Quiet Eye contains visual art on one page paired with a poignant phrase or sentence on the other. Browsing the book on one of those summer mornings on the bed, cat again stretched by my side, one particular image, the drawing Hare by Albrecht Durer, stopped me. The way the hare was sketched—so much attention to the strands of fur, individual wisps given benevolent care—unearthed something around the deadened parts of me, and I could feel the artist’s love in the animal's soft, glistening coat, and that love imparted an intimation of hope.

I roughed out some words detailing the experience of the book, the cat, my lostness. The piece was a slow, meditative knitting: a word, then a phrase, fragments and little images. I became relentlessly absorbed in the making of those 600 words, thick in the grammar of grief, sensing something of my life depended upon its exacting creation.

* * *

Reading an essay by William Dyrness, I first learned of the poetry created in the wake of Japan’s tsunami. He muses on the creative impulse toward poetics, which he defines as “the larger sphere of imaginative and affective making” amid tragedy, writing, “The poetic gives us space to go on living; we survive by making aesthetic sense of things. This becomes our mode of transport, it carries us through.” I kept returning to those words. Something within me rose up in that statement, simultaneously touching, as it did, both my grief and its healing.

When I seek to make “aesthetic sense of things,” I am asking what truly matters. I am seeking to understand and organize my world not just in light of a string of circumstances and their aftermaths but with something larger and more lasting—beauty, truth, and goodness—realities which lead me to intimately face life events while also transcending them. 

This movement toward beauty, truth and goodness is ultimately a journey toward God where I may more fully recognize the holy in the redemptive arc of my life. To make art out of those lonely summer mornings is a meaning-making activity that discovers that the seemingly disparate pieces of my grief are really essential parts of a larger narrative, one that is coherent, significant and hopeful. 

* * *

The autumn that followed that difficult summer extended the thread of depression into a new year, 2015, where, near the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I sought out a grief counselor, someone with whom I could deliberately sift through the string of losses of the previous two years. I read books and articles on grief and delved again into literature I loved. I stumbled through the work I needed to do, and somehow, the fog lifted by inches. During this last year, I’ve walked alongside a church plant begun by a friend and started forming a faith-based arts nonprofit. I’m picking up my writing again in earnest, working on essays and wondering whether to sketch out a possible memoir on loss and art. Life, it seems, is knee-deep in the birth of new things, and I am grateful.

This week, I’ve been reading of the ceremonies memorializing the fifth anniversary of the 2011 tsunami. Amid remembrances at a Buddhist monastery, one monk commented on the remaining scars, saying, “I think there are some that will never heal.” Perhaps not. There’s a grief we get over and a grief we carry. All the more reason to enfold the artful into our living, to stay connected to our and others’ artful creating, to keep seeking to make aesthetic sense of the life we’re given. 

I’m remembering my mother, days away from the second anniversary of her death, missing her vital presence in the world. Typing these thoughts on an unusually warm mid-March afternoon, I think about the words of the little essay begun that summer, Durer’s Hare, and my headlong plunge into the dark soil of depression. I’m thankful for the ways I am carried and how aesthetic “making”—mine and others’—creates more room to love and to hope, how it threads through my ruins and vulnerabilities, showing me—and all of us—what it means to take hold of the aliveness we’re offered, to know the beauty of survival.

Photograph by Gustavo Bueso Padgett

Judith Hougen is a Professor of English and teaches writing at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul in Minnesota. She is the author of a collection of poetry (The Second Thing I Remember) and a spiritual formation text (Transformed Into Fire). If you’d like to read the prose piece described in this post, it’s available to read on her blog.

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