Lights drifting downstream

National Geographic 2008 International Photography Contest

National Geographic 2008 International Photography Contest

Sugino writes this caption to her photo, “In Japan, ancestral spirits come back to their families in mid-August every year. People provide rest for the ancestors’ spirits for three days and then send them back by putting them on lanterns to drift down river.”

What is missing is a description of the Obon Festival and the legend behind it:

A disciple of the Buddha wished to release his mother from the realm of suffering. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to his fellow monks on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The disciple did this and his mother’s release also opened his eyes to her personal history and the sacrifices that she had made for him.  Oban became a time in which ancestors and their sacrifices are recognized and appreciated not only through ritual, but by recognizing that tradition through community service and celebration.

While it’s true that many cultures participate in some form of ancestor worship, I’ve always thought that ghost lanterns on water, viking ships on fire, and fallen leaves on a stream were the poetic counterpoints to our experience of life.

Advertisements

Winter passages

Folks in San Francisco, 1959

Folks in San Francisco, 1959

I’m going to be up front right now and admit to simply copying a whole chunk of Susie Bright’s post on Boing Boing. Not only could I have written it myself given my own parents passed on the holidays and in same years as hers, but I also had a cherished voice recording from my mother. In fact it was losing her last voicemail to me on my cell phone after changing my calling plan (Verizon erased all my saved messages without warning) that was even a greater agony than her funeral, which I barely remember it being so rushed and I in such a fog. I’d saved her voice for nearly three years, every 28 days like clockwork, and when it disappeared it was like another death all over again. I did everything I could, talked to anyone who would listen about recovering that voicemail–from customer service reps to supervisors to lawyers. In the end there was no resurrection. And I’m still stunned by how powerful voice memories can be above and beyond photographs or writings. Anyway, Susie has similar recollections. Here is an excerpt from her post:

“My mother died four years ago, on a Christmas week. My father passed the next winter, when the light started changing and the warm days were gone for good.

A nurse called me one night from my mother’s hospital bed and talked about the winter chill — how when the temperatures suddenly dropped, even though everyone was well-heated in the nursing home, a score of people would pass away. The dying of the light at the end of the year was more than just a metaphor.

I feel a kindred spirit with others who’ve lost close friends and family during the holidays — our memories of those relationships, warm or troubled, close or estranged, are overwhelming this time of year.

I was fortunate to find a book after my parents died, called Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents, which is a collection of interviews with an incredibly diverse group of people who don’t mince words about the transformation of loss.

Who knew that actor/rapper Ice-T got his nickname as a result of how cold he became as a child when he lost his mom and dad. I sobbed over Geraldine Ferraro’s story, of all people. Each story is  illuminating and comforting, especially during the holiday mania, when “false consciousness” seems to be in overdrive.”

Dust is a condition

From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books

From Library of Dust by David Maisel, published by Chronicle Books

A very beautiful and melancholy essay from an architectural blog, BLDGBLOG, on the Library of Dust. It includes mentions of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the reason I picked the University of Oregon for an English degree was because Ken Kesey taught there at the time), Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (which was influenced by Borges, two of my favorite writers and their fantastical visions of librari-es/ans), and a book titled Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible by Joseph Amato, which was an amazing piece of science writing about something we rarely consider anything more than a daily annoyance if we consider it at all. Geoff Manaugh writes a beautiful counterpart to the images,

“Each canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse – reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human. What strange chemistries we see emerging here between man and metal. Because these were people; they had identities and family histories, long before they became nameless patients, encased in metal, catalytic.

In some ways, these canisters serve a double betrayal: a man or woman left alone, in a labyrinth of medication, prey to surveillance and other inhospitable indignities, only then to be wed with metal, robbed of form, fused to a lattice of unliving minerals – anonymous. Do we see in Maisel’s images then – as if staring into unlabeled graves, monolithic and metallized, stacked on shelves in a closet – the tragic howl of reduction to nothingness, people who once loved, and were loved, annihilated?”

Or do we just see ourselves in another form? The byproduct of a chemical bloom of color, the matter we used to be creating a florescence marking not the end, but continuous and constant change, even after death?

“Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard”

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;

The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small —
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.

(Excerpted from: Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard, from The Niagara River by Kay Ryan, Copyright © 2005 by Kay Ryan.)

Hopefully that is enough to tempt you to read the whole poem in The New York Times, and perhaps their profile of our nation’s new 16th Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress. Kay is a poet with a compelling personal history. She is a California poet compared to Emily Dickenson, was born where I grew up (interesting trivia at least to me), has never taken a creative writing class, and in a 2004 interview in The Christian Science Monitor, she said, “I have tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy.” Until now, Kay has been the outsider, shunned by her peers yet managing to persevere and maintain a dry sense of humor reflected in her work. I don’t think she has the same beautiful voice and hypnotic reading style as her better known predecessor Billy Collins, or the stark emotion and notoriety of Louise Glück, but I’m happy she was selected for the job because of her approachable style. The position certainly will not allow her to live very quietly, and at $35,000/year it certainly isn’t much more than she must have been making as an English teacher so it makes one wonder if it will make her very happy. It will, as the above poem states, leave deep tracks. And as is usual for many of us, in the end I’m sure those tracks are not at all what she would have expected.

Messages from the grave

Headstone in Fernwood Cemetery without name or dateSometimes I’ll run across something interesting and hold onto it, waiting to write because not only am I sure something related will show up to give it context, but it gives me time to reflect on the connection it makes with the others. This week it was grave markers.

I received a call last week from a trade magazine, Stone in America (unfortunately not online). They had found my blog and were interested in the reasons for its genesis. It was a difficult question because as with all interests and hobbies, it can’t be distilled to a single answer. It’s the result of a love for storytelling, art and history. And conveniently that trinity is reflected in the visual stories embodied in epitaphs and tombstones. Take this item titled Comic Epitaphs from Today’s Inspiration, a blog focusing on illustration from the 30s and 40s. Leif likes the drawings, while I’m more interested in the words. Our focus is different but our interest is shared. It’s a stretch believing these are truly taken from actual headstones since there’s no more detail about them. But maybe they were never meant to truly be used as epitaphs, only as a way for folks to find a little light humor in the inevitability of death. A little mystery surrounds them.

Today their equivalent is becoming more technically sophisticated. No more colorfully illustrated and mysterious chapbooks to be found at the back of a bookstore. Now we seem to expect a whole “rich media” experience right in the moment. Which isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just mindbogglingly different. The latest trend in Japan employed by a memorial stone maker there uses sophisticated graphical bar codes (called QR codes which are related to, but dissimilar from RFID chips). They are inexpensive to produce, will likely have a longer lifespan in terms of access, and can be easily read by cell phones with cameras. The idea is to point and click your camera phone at one of these bar codes and, with the right software installed, the image will link you to a web page with more information about that physical object (as long as a web page is maintained of course). It requires you use less of your imagination, but provides a whole new world of information you never would’ve had access to before. Is it art or storytelling or both? Same could be said of Stonehenge. And perhaps someday people will look at these tiny QR codes embedded in monuments wonder at them in the same way. (Thanks to Karen for the tip!)

The confusing ethics of resuscitation science

Even though DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) bracelets have been available in the U.S. for years, I have a feeling there will always be controversy surrounding whether a patient can/should refuse critical care. Especially in cases of unforeseen emergency. Imaginative methods of preventing heroic lifesaving measures will continue to challenge the law until we can come up with a foolproof system everyone is comfortable with. But since attitudes towards what would constitute compassionate treatment differ wildly when it comes to extreme paralysis, coma, or chronic pain, I hold little hope we’ll reach an agreement in my lifetime. Ask any Ambulance Driver and they will tell you even the study of resuscitation is an inexact science that requires a patient’s ignorance:

“We will never know the best way to treat people unless we do this research. And the only way we can do this research, since the person is unconscious, is without consent,” said Myron L. Weisfeldt of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who is overseeing the project. “Even if there are family members present, they know their loved one is dying. The ambulance is there. The sirens are going off. You can’t possibly imagine gaining a meaningful informed consent from someone under those circumstances.”

Which means depending on where you live, it really may not matter if you carry a card, have a tattoo or sign a Medical Directive since the rule for an EMT based on protocol is resuscitate first, ask questions later. This is also why DNR’s are usually reserved for patients with terminal illnesses who wish to die without invasive medical procedures rather than for people experiencing heart trauma or other medical emergencies. Ultimately (and frustratingly for some of us) it seems the only fail-proof (?) method is trusting your eventual caregivers to know your desires and be strong enough emotionally to fight for your rights, if it ever comes to that. (via BoingBoing)

UPDATE: In a related story, the Washington Post reports on a New York Ambulance service for recovering your organs if EMTs can’t save you. While organ donation is desperately needed, of course it makes people suspicious: “I think it’s disgusting,” said Michael A. Grodin, director of bioethics at Boston University. “People are going to worry when the ambulance comes out to their house whether they are there to care for them or to take their organs.”

A wordless diary of 18 years

Depending on your view of the legacy he left behind, Jamie Livingston is an inspiration or a man obsessed with capturing the ordinary. Either way he is now posthumously famous thanks to some great detective work and reporting by Chris Higgins and the dedication of his friends, Betsy and Hugh who are at this very moment struggling to keep the website live despite the crush of popularity currently crippling their server. “When Jamie Livingston, photographer, filmmaker, circus performer, accordion player, Mets fan, and above all, loyal friend, died on October 25th (his birthday) in 1997 at the age of 41, he left behind hundreds of bereft friends and a collection of 6,000 photographs neatly organized in small suitcases and wooden fruit crates…” No words, unless you count the words within the photos themselves. Just Polaroids. Which actually makes sense if you’re a filmmaker and one visual is worth, well, thousands of words. The whole mystery ends up being a bit unintentional but still, you can sense the exhilaration in Betsy’s writing,

i knew it would happen in some random way. i love it. the tears started coming when i pulled up OTBKB and read the first few words….

Another friend wrote to her:

i can just see the shit eatin’ grin on jamie — the new hero of the blogosphere’s — face! precious and priceless.

Isn’t that something? And based on the number of comments on OTBKB, it’s quite emotional for many people to glimpse this man’s life in such a way. The whole thread is really worth reading because some of the comments are as insightful as the photographs.

I have a friend who has opted to do something similar with his daughter. I won’t link to it here since she is a minor and still quite alive. (Of course, if he wishes he can leave the URL in the comments). But he has taken a photo of her at least once every month since she was born and already has quite a collection since she is nine now. I can’t help but wonder if she will chose to continue this inherited legacy once she is on her own, or if she will chose another. It certainly will be a great gift he will give her when she is old enough to understand the dedication it takes.

Besides getting up every morning and drinking coffee, there is no compulsion I religiously repeat the same way each day. There are others who journal or create one sketch per day but I have a kind of attention deficit disorder when it comes to finding my own work compelling enough to collect rather than simply give away. Maybe I haven’t found a gimmick and it is waiting for me in some yet undiscovered form. A collection of some kind that reflects who I am–once I find out who that really is.