Standing in the den two nights ago my husband rubbed his hands through his hair, looked at me and said, “Have I come undone?”
I said, “Well, I’m sure you have. Listen to this. . . .”
I opened a book and read something I’d found earlier that very day. Stumbled across it really.
“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other” (Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, 2004, 19).
I didn’t hesitate to say “yes” to his question because we’ve all come undone. And we’re always coming undone because grief and its predecessor desire are always weaving in and out of our lives.
Butler, who is a philosopher and theorizes about gender and sexuality, says in a very lovely observation about grief: “I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. I’m certain, though, that it does not mean that one has forgotten the person, or that something else comes along to take his or her place. I don’t think it works that way. I think instead that one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance” (Ibid., 18).
Now it turns out that what my husband was actually talking about is the oversized garden he’s planning for this summer. Okay garden is too meager a word. Small farm. He’s gathered up strangers, friends, equipment, seeds and way more dirt than I care to think about. He’s returning to his roots in a way. I’m one more generation removed from growing my own food than he is. (I’m still wondering what we’ll do with it all if it grows.) The plan has been underway for months. And even though the planning was underway, to return to roots feels like a practice of grieving in some profound way.
Butler goes on, “So there is losing and there is the transformative effect of the loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned. I don’t think for instance, you invoke a Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. You can’t say ‘Oh, I’ll go through the loss this way, and that will be the result, and I’ll apply myself to the task, and I’ll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me’” (Ibid., 18).
So farming won’t return us to normal or help us control the outcome of the changes. And my writing won’t make everything okay or resolve things.
But the timing feels right. Amid grief we’ll dig in the dirt . . . feel muscles strain . . . watch things grow . . . toil and sweat . . . eat the fruits of our labor . . .
See how much of it we can’t control . . . rain, sun, hungry creatures . . . growth itself.
In our losses and in our loves we are all undone. As another friend put it to me, “every lament is a love song.” And in a loss so tender as we have felt in this season of Lent, we are undone and in our undoing we are each living in the “thrall of relationships,” as Butler puts it, that compound and complicate our undoing.
We don’t yet know the end of the story, the transformative effect, how we will be remade in ways we can’t yet imagine. Let’s face it. We don’t know the end of the story or how we will be transformed. Only that we are being changed and undone. So maybe we’ll just have to dig in and see what happens.