Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mercy redux

Van Gogh Roses (1890) at the National Gallery in D.C.
I had been told this would happen, and indeed it has started happening: completely unexpected and unassociated thoughts of my dad blazing through. So there I stood in the National Gallery yesterday, inexplicably riveted before Van Gogh's 1890 white roses while Eleanor was running between me and a Tahitian Gauguin scene she was sketching (busy busy). Maybe it's not so unassociated, maybe never that disconnected - white roses from dear friends were waiting for us when we got home from the funeral. Powerful, very very present, gladly gorgeous roses. And as I stood there, a phrase I'd found myself saying in a Skype to a warm and vivid friend (with whom conversations always create these gifts to think on later) emerged crisp and clear and lucid: Beauty is mercy in times of sorrow.

Beauty is mercy in times of sorrow. A goodly part of me doesn't even want to describe how, just wants to leave this untouched and alone already - but my prose is going to blunder in, shoulder past the aesthetics, and stand there and try to understand this. Why we smile at flowers. Why we bow down to them, curious or eager for their scent. Why we put them in the center of things. Why sometimes we hold them in our arms. Why we want to capture them in art. Why the Little Prince would have done anything in the universe for his rose. Very living lively things that can only sustain so much depth (look to how much more seriously one can speak of trees or rocks; consider the flat discursive space of iconography which reduces the lily to a sign for virginity). And yet every last one of us would notice if there were fresh cut flowers in the room - initiating their own little cycles of beauty and death. (But that was actually another good thing: when the roses faded and it was time to throw them away, that was a specific time (of all-enveloping mourning, of pointed sadness) that had passed.) If there were flowers when we walked in, every last one of us would notice and be gladdened, even if fleetingly gladdened.

Mercy starts in the etymology of gift (9th century), itself with roots in exchange and markets (Lat. mercedem). Mercy is merciful because it bespeaks a relationship right away. You are not alone. Mercy is a tipping point: it is not a solution to your woes, it doesn't explain or fix things. It is not a philosophy, though I think it could be an ethics. This is why it is found in embraces, gazes, and flowers - simple, fleeting things that aren't going to resolve anything, but instead will alight on your sorrow and spare you from that sorrow for just a little while. It is also something Southerners say when It (life, the heat, what you just said) is just too much. "Spare me" - a lovely phrase that can be turned sarcastic by angst and exasperation. Peel that back and you get the most serious element of mercy: to be spared. When people "cry out" for mercy, they are asking to be spared (yes, an Old English word), to be safe from harm, for this fear and panic, this feeling of being at war with something in the world, to stop. I've been reading Rebecca Solnit's book A Field Guide to Getting Lost in preparation for the return to Brittany. In it, she present the etymology of "lost" as Old Norse: "los, meaning the disbanding of an army." (7) I think that this comes up now because mercy comes when you feel lost. Mercy comes at moments of loss. She goes on: "this origin suggest soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world." How did the pilot at the beginning of the Little Prince come to be lost? And so these thoughts, the beginning of this post, realizing I've written about mercy before in these pages but oh so long ago and so differently it now seems, while standing there in front of Van Gogh's very present, very material, very brave roses - making me think of my father and his mercy, in his mercy. And Eleanor, meanwhile, wanting to know more about Tahiti and when are we going to the Air and Space Museum and what's next.


  1. I've had those sudden, out-of-nowhere thoughts, too, and I started to wonder if we aren't always having fleeting thoughts about our loved ones all the time, and only just notice them more when, suddenly, those thoughts now come tinged with pain. But it may be a gift of mercy (love the etymology) to know that we've been thinking of our loved ones all the time all along.

  2. Ben! What a lovely way to think of it - I think that there _is_ more of a continuum there than I've previously been able to see. Increasingly, there are layers instead of lines.

  3. Ann, I am so struck by your beautiful post. I never understood until I endured my own experiece of unutterable grief how meaningful a gift of flowers can be. Like you say, they are fleeting, but there's something so comforting in the tangible expression of concern. It's almost as if the love and concern and even memories for the lost loved one come to momentary life in the leaves and petals and color and fragrance. And it's not even just the symbolism of the fleeting beauty or the cyclical nature of plant life. There's something more. What you say here about mercy really clarifies for me how I feel about all of the signs of comfort that follow a loss. Your notion that "beauty is mercy in times of sorrow" reveals a truth I couldn't express. I also couldn't agree more that sudden and surprising moments of memory or sadness sometime lead to beautiful or meaningful connections. I am so sorry that you've lost your father, and I know that it still must be raw. But I also must thank you for sharing your experience so honestly and beautifully. Open and thoughtful discussions of grief can, I think, help everyone engage with their individual emotional processes with more understanding and compassion. I send you both my sympathy and my thanks for what you've expressed in your blog.