Monday, May 19, 2014


Now and again, something triggers a memory of an unusual conversation with my mother.  As a woman who came of age in the nineteen forties, she was dedicated to her husband's well-being, often to her disadvantage and to the unhappiness of the people around her.  You can give of yourself just so much before you are empty or angry.  We were having a conversation about one of those times, and I had been reading Lord of the Rings aloud to Veronica for the second or third time.  I had been struck by the fact that hobbits are among LORT's most important heroes.  It is humble Frodo and even humbler Sam who can return the ring to Mount Doom because they are not seduced by the blandishments of power.  Sam only wants a good set of pots and pans so he can make meals for others; indeed, friendship, food, and pipe weed are among the hobbits' greatest joys.  It was with that fact in mind that I told my mother "Pleasure is moral."  The statement completely confused her, and when I tried to give the synopsis of LOTR that would prove this, she quickly got lost.  For her, helpful literature was mostly Gone with the Wind, which she read yearly and which I don't think saw much good in pleasure--though it certainly shored up one's survival instincts.  I don't think she ever got it, though in her later years she embraced the pleasures of ice cream cones and chocolate with an enthusiasm that often left her with a messy face--a good thing.

In the grand scheme of things, the death of a seven-year-old cat who has been sick for four months and who has retreated more and more into some isolated and threatening universe of her own mind is one of life's minor travails.  I don't want to undervalue the connection we have to animals or the way that connection teaches us to be imaginative and empathetic; I also don't want to undervalue our responsibility to them, something we implicitly take on when we invite them into our homes.  I  don't want to undervalue life itself, to suggest that once we get below a certain threshold of sentience or expressiveness, a life matters less. That's a slippery slope I don't want to go down.  I do want to celebrate the wordless, comforting intimacy we can have with the animals in our lives, and the way they (ironically?) remind us to be human in so many ways:  to laugh, to stop to play with them, to remember how powerful touch is, to be aware that we are not the only important creatures on the planet, to recall the pleasure in giving food or comfort to someone else.  People who study human well-being note that it increases when we add pets to our lives.  But although I am trying to place her death in a reasonable perspective, I am still grieving--as is Twig, I am guessing.  

The antidote to that, it seemed to me, was some pleasure this weekend.  It was as if I needed to re-set or re-frame my relationship with the world this weekend.

Paul Bloom, in How Pleasure Works:  the new science of why we like what we like has suggested that the pleasure we take in things is fairly complicated and socially shaped.  We take a certain pleasure in walking around with a bottle of Evian because of what it signals about us:  that we are health-conscious, that we care about the purity of water, that we know where to get the best water.  We believe, Bloom argues, that things have an "essence" that makes them valuable--and hence pleasurable.  How else to explain that a tape measure owned by John F. Kennedy sold at an aucction for $48,875 or that Todd MacFarlane paid $3 million for the seventieth home run baseball hit by Mark McGwire, and indeed that MacFarlane has a whole collection of such famous baseballs?

But I think Bloom's premise--that there has to be an evolutionary advantage to the kinds of pleasure we indulge in--blinds him to some of life's innocent, daily joys.  An intimate conversation with someone you love. A nap with a cat--in the sunshine, if possible.  The feeling of fresh air--even fairly chilly, damp air--on one's skin.  A good cup or tea or coffee.  Reading poetry.  (There's a pleasure I'm certain Bloom couldn't explain.) A good night's sleep.  Friendship.  Sightings of the three pairs of rose breasted grosbeaks that come to my bird feeder, or the pair of mourning doves.  Watching the flicker spin around on the suet feeder. A drive in the rain to see how spring is coming along, noting each tree that is taking on an aura of green, each tulip, each forsythia that is proclaiming its joy to the grey air.  

So I spent time with Veronica and Bill, I made lovely meals, I watched the birds and took time for a cup of coffee.  I napped with Twig.  I pieced and read.  We had a couple of lovely drives, one in the sunshine, one in the rain. I don't think I'm really grieving less:  her absence still jolts me when I look for her in one of her favourite spots or think I hear her.  But it hurts a little less. I think of the world more kindly.  An here's the really interesting thing:  my enjoyment of these small pleasures brought some comfort, but they were also a celebration of what she added to my life.

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