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This week, I’ve been feeling haunted.  Not with the paranormal, UFO’s, or horror films.  Events past and stories and photographs have been my lurking in my mind this week, and today they’ve finally caught up with me.

Last night, I dreamt of an event that has already happened:  the details were different, but the story was the same.  Someone left me.  Someone with whom I was deeply in love with left me this year.  I dunno why, but the scene replayed itself in my mind again, last night, rendering me a sobbing wreck today.  Thanks, subconscious, you’re a bloody fucking peach.

The past two or three weeks have been very hectic:  things are happening at work, I began teaching an ESL class for adults in the evening, and both of these things have kept me from focusing on other things, during the week.  Which means it’s all hitting me today, now, on my day off, because this is the only time I have in order to break down.  Well, that seems fair, right?  Hardly.

I have been making an earnest attempt at keeping up with my reading, and that is the second half of my week’s haunting.  I have been reading stories from the latest Granta magazine, the Chicago issue.  I love Chicago:  I have family there, and have made many trips by car or plane to visit, the last trip being summer of 2008.  None of the stories I’ve read so far have been similar to my experience– which is good and bad.  But when a writer talks about Lake Shore drive or Midway or Cicero, well, I’ve got a reference point.  It’s nice.

As a preface to the story I want to talk about, I need to say this:  a few years ago, I saw the Pulitzer Prize Photographs exhibit here in Nashville at the Frist.  I think there were about 50 photographs, and they are blown up to tremendous size, therefore eliciting a much larger emotional response than would a smaller photo, one seen in a book or even on a computer.  Viewing this exhibit was emotionally draining; some photos we are all familiar with, due to their having been plastered everywhere.  Others, though just as startling, are not so familiar.  One such photo that I was unfamiliar with was this:  a photo of a small black boy, taken from a low point, in what looked like the quad of a public housing development; in the background, the public housing building looms, large and ugly and not just a bit scary.  But the juxtaposition is what makes the photo:  the boy is running, laughing, happy.  It’s startling.

I can’t recall where the photo was taken, when, or who the photographer is.  A google search has not produced the answer, either.  But I was reminded of this photo by the essay and photo essay by Camilo Jose Vergara entitled “The Projects.”  The essay is a little heartbreaking:  Vergara talks about his project of photographing Chicago over the course of nearly 30 years.  When you look at the photos, it’s painful to see how some things really never change.  He writes about how he went to Chicago’s infamous (and extremely dangerous) housing projects and took photos from the roof.  He wrote about the violence, the horrific living conditions, the utter perversity of the fact that people had to live in these housing projects.  Several of these projects have been bulldozed in recent years, with books popping up from those who had to live in them.  Just what I read from Vergara’s essay was enough to scare me:  I’m not sure I could read a first hand experience from an actual tenant.

The photos Vergara took jolted my memory of the Pulitzer Prize Photo exhibit:  the Cabrini Green projects look exactly like the building I saw in the exhibit photo.  Another surprise to me was the fact that the Chicago housing projects are HUGE:  16 stories, on blocks that are miles long.  One project held 28 buildings.  It had never occurred to me, before now, that bigger cities had bigger projects.  Nashville of course has them as well, but nothing to match the size of Cabrini Green.  Nothing to match the violence held in the Chicago projects.  And yes, I have been in some projects here, and seen them first-hand, during my years in social work.  No, there were not the safest or best-kept living spaces; but damn, they don’t compare to the ones in Chicago.  Perhaps it’s my naivete that keeps me from assuming there are worse places.

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The first story I read from my latest edition of Granta was Mary Gaitskill’s “Lost Cat.”  I sobbed the entire way through.  Gaitskill asked some very interesting questions; mainly, how do we deal with the losses in our lives?  And who determines how big or small those losses are?

Gaitskill narrates the story of a cat named Gattino, a 7-month old stray she rescued from orphanhood in Italy.  But intertwined with Gattino’s story are other stories:  Gaitskill deftly weaves in and out of narratives about her relationships with other people, such as her father, her sisters, and the two underprivileged children she and her husband are involved with.  Gaitskill scolds one of her sisters because of the sister’s hysterical reaction at the imminent death of her cat; later, she experiences the same thing, first hand.

There are several things that stick out in this story as being very important.  The idea of what trauma is, how it is defined, and who defines it is intriguing.  I don’t think there is a pat answer for this question: I believe that everyone experiences things differently and in different degrees.  What is devastating to one person may not be to another.  And due to experience, we all learn different sets of coping skills.  When I speak of certain things in my life as being traumatizing, or tragic, others may question this.  But really, how can you judge what is traumatic for another person?  Or tragic?  You can’t.  And I think this is clear in Gaitskill’s story.  She felt very keenly the loss of this cat, and who is anyone else to say that this was not a tragic loss?

When Gaitskill and her husband had to leave Gattino at a vet’s while they were traveling, she cried; so much so that her sobbing elicited a response from others with her.  But she had the insight to know that it wasn’t just the cat she was crying over:  it was so many other things.  The cat was a conduit through which other feelings came pouring through.  Gaitskill describes this later when talking about her father and his many losses.  Her father lost both parents at a very young age; soon after he lost his dog.  The dog became the door through which his grief for his parents was able to be released.  Gaitskill touches on how some people think that animals and pets have less value (or should have less value) than humans.  But isn’t it sometimes easier to love an animal or a pet than a human? It’s certainly easier to grieve the loss of a pet than a parent; as Gaitskill says, some losses are just simply too big to deal with.

Personally, this story touched me on many other levels.  Not just because I’ve had loss in my life, or because I’ve also lost cats.  I love how she presents grief as such a personal experience, and how it reveals itself in surprising ways.

She stated that the act of looking for Gattino, the waiting in parking lots and all the other things she did, made her feel as if he was still around.  Actions say so much; had she and her husband given up and stopped looking, it’s likely might have believed differently.  Their actions were hopeful.  They believed Gattino was still out there, still alive.

The psychics Mary spoke to along the way gave differing stories of what had happened to Gattino, but they always seemed hopeful to me, regardless of what they said.  Even when a psychic would say Gattino was dead, they would say something hopeful, like they felt Gattino didn’t want Mary to suffer.  The psychic messages Mary sent to Gattino were heartbreaking, but comforting.  Whether or not it’s true that a human can have this sort of connection with a cat beside the point; believing that you can gives the situation hope.  Gaitskill says that she does not consider this ‘magical thinking’ as different than any other thinking.  To me, it’s no different than any of the other thousands of rituals and superstitious type thoughts we all have a thousand times a day.  The thoughts are just focused in a different direction.

Eventually, Gaitskill was able to think of Gattino and feel comfort, not sadness.  When I see Gattino’s photo, I just smile.  For such a small cat, he certainly accomplished so much.

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