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sontagbook.jpgThis one hit home for me, an excerpt from “Swimming in a Sea of Death, A Son’s Memoir” from an interview by Terry Gross on NPR:

“Thinking back, I wish I’d hugged her close or held her hand. But neither of us had ever been physically demonstrative with the other, and while much has been said and written about how people transcend their pettier sides in crises, in my experience, at least, what actually happens is that more often we reveal what lies beneath the waterline of what we essentially are.”

In his book David Rieff writes about his mother, Susan Sontag, and her struggle with cancer. She died around the same time as my own mother, with mine being only a few years older. David voices some of the same “unanswerable questions of a survivor” that in hindsight plagued my ability to talk openly with my own mother about her failing health and the forced cheerfulness, or in my case ignorance, of the gravity of her diagnosis. And while my mother was not a famous writer, I can say without hesitation she loved life equally as much in her own way, whereas my feelings tend to drift towards the “…eighteenth-century French writer who wrote a friend asking “why, hating life as I do, do I fear death so much?” That was Larkin’s perspective, too. It was even Canetti’s when he wrote, “One should not confuse the craving for life with endorsement of it.” Regardless of a personal perspective on death, Rieff puts the difficulty of consoling another facing it into sharp focus, and everyone who has confronted similar situations will be left nodding their heads. He talks of the things he felt he should have seen, the do-overs if given the chance. He examines them without the overly sentimental perspective one would expect from a child who has lost a parent. They are simply those unanswerable questions we are each left with in the end, “Did I do the right thing? Could I have done more? Or proposed an alternative? Or been more supportive? Or forced the issue of death to the fore? Or concealed it better?” and there is no predicting them. Listening to him talk about what he wanted from her and what he felt she wanted in her own death is an interesting reflection on death and his mother’s struggle to deny it purchase.

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Basic Instructions LogoI’ve been following Scott Meyer’s work ever since he started getting cartooning advice from Scott Adams a couple of months ago. Although I’m also a fan of Adams, there were times I didn’t think his advice worked, which surprised me because like most people I seek out expert opinion, or at least the opinions of people who seem to understand and who’ve “been there, done that.” There were times though I wanted to write Meyers and whisper “hey, you’re doing just fine. You make me laugh. I mean yes that other guy’s made millions and what he did obviously worked for him, but for you…not so much.” Of course then I figured that was just my advice, and I haven’t been there. Besides, he already has heard hundreds of voices telling him variations on that same theme. Enough to drive anyone crazy. In the end all we each have to go on is our own sense of the “rightness” of things. So I’m just grateful he keeps producing things like today’s strip, How To Express Condolences. Sometimes when you can’t cry anymore a smile is the only other emotional knee jerk reaction available. It has the added benefit of making your friends a little more comfortable with the whole grieving thing. If there are enough smiles, the healing feels like it must be right around the corner. Which is why we all need people like both Scott and Scott.

the world to meIt has been difficult to write this last month because my closest companion passed away on August 31 and I really haven’t known how to write about it. I still don’t. I knew he would never live as long as me, and that his broken heart would actually kill him sooner than the average life expectancy for his kind. But I think because I loved and cared for him so fervently he managed to hold on for me a few years longer than predicted. I know deep down I should be grateful for that extra time instead of mourning the fact that I didn’t have more. But that is inevitable isn’t it? Which brings me to Kevin Kelly’s discussion of Life Time, and how important it is to recognize how much we have left, with tools and predictions to help you count your own numbered days down. It’s all very fascinating and even a bit puzzling, as if a daily reminder of your eventual death to will keep you hopping about, motivated and ultimately anxious about those (lost) minutes ticking by. (Apparently I am going to die on Tuesday, July 22, 2042 but to me those kinds of predictions are really no more reliable than my horoscope.) Regardless, I think the point is you really never have enough no matter what the prediction or number is. I never held jcee in my lap enough. I never told my mother I loved her enough. I never took the time to ask my father about his life until it was too late and he could no longer remember it. Last Sunday I stumbled upon Garrison Keillor’s monologue, News From Lake Wobegon, on the radio. It was beautiful and worth listening to….he talked about how fall and the golden days of September remind us how we always hope there will be more….how all good things come to an end and how it is the end, the knowledge of death, that makes life so unbearably, heartbreakingly beautiful. Put it on your podcast list for listening during these fall afternoons. The poetry of it I think much better than clockwatching…

thurmanoncompassion.jpgBob Thurman became a Tibetan monk at age 24. I was surprised to learn he was the first American and Buddhist scholar to be ordained by the Dalai Lama. In his Ted Talk, (filmed in 2006 and posted just recently) Thurman has some great things to say about self awareness despite couching it in terms of technology which I suppose is due to the nature of the venue. But he really gets rolling around the six minute mark. It struck me because I’ve always considered how heartbreaking it is to be compassionate if it means taking on another person’s pain. He explains this paradox of how embracing someone else’s pain actually makes us see ourselves differently. And most remarkably, the way to help those who suffer is by having a good time. You have to listen to him to really make sense of this, but in part the key to compassion is that it is more fun (and by this I think he means rewarding) than focusing on only yourself. He asks, what is our brain for if not for compassion? What is it for indeed…not to worry about how we achieve our own happiness in this lifetime, but contributing daily to the happiness of another is our brain’s greatest gift. So to heck with all that worry about my next paycheck, who will I make happy today?!

callingangels.jpgHow many roads, how many times…that’s part of a folk song I sang when I was a kid. It is also part of the Hitchhiker’s codex,
“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
…So the search for the ultimate question began. Lacking a real question, the mice proposed to use “How many roads must a man walk down?” (the first line of “Blowin’ in the Wind“)

And just where is she going with this you might ask? Well, I do have a point and it concerns our apparent love for steps and processes and the compulsion to answer how far, how long, how many. As if by following the rules we can somehow achieve a kind of grace. If we can break anything down by components we feel we have a handle on it.

So while the quote below comes from part of a long silly list (#21 to be exact) of “things you should know by 50” I’m actually relived to see there is no order to the progression besides just the small steps it takes to get through the day. It is a bit of kitchen wisdom by Larkin Warren:

“After the first death, there is no other,” wrote Dylan Thomas. That doesn’t mean the ones that come after won’t break your heart, but it’s the first that punches your soul’s passport. Welcome, fellow human, to a different country than the one you woke up to this morning. The air’s different here; so is the scenery. Your knees don’t work so well; in fact, you may want to fall to them.”

And I agree with Yuna, this is not age specific learning.

bird-cry.jpgSharing sorrow publicly makes you vulnerable to the rude behavior of spiteful people. Some say the act of blogging simply welcomes the burdens of any celebrity: you open yourself to public scrutiny so your life is no longer private–you provide a pulpit for the opinions of others who feel it their right to comment on you, your lifestyle, your perceived talents or your mental state. Others say netizens should follow a code of conduct that asks us all to be nicer to one another. It’s idealistic of course, but hardly enforceable. There will always be the Iago archetype. Proving that point, this blog post contains only a poem written by someone who has just lost her dog. The comments started out with the usual condolences offered by her shared community that turn hurtful when anonymous commentors chime in. It’s a pity really but then again it’s no wonder people often prefer to keep their sorrows to themselves. Nothing makes her grief any different from Whitman’s

Tears! tears! tears!
In the night, in solitude, tears,
On the white shore dripping, dripping, suck’d in by the sand,
Tears, not a star shining, all dark and desolate,
Moist tears from the eyes of a muffled head;
O who is that ghost? that form in the dark, with tears?
What shapeless lump is that, bent, crouch’d there on the sand?
Streaming tears, sobbing tears, throes, choked with wild cries;
O storm, embodied, rising, careering with swift steps along the beach!
O wild and dismal night storm, with wind-O belching and desperate!
O shade so sedate and decorous by day, with calm countenance and regulated pace,
But away at night as you fly, none looking-O then the unloosen’d ocean,
Of tears! tears! tears!

stewart.jpgDuring my routine Sunday morning reading I came across this picture for Mothers Day, and was stunned to recognize the pose of death I saw in my own father close to the day he died. I find it very admirable that the Muir found the strength to share it with the world. It reminded me of the book by C.S. Lewis, “In A Grief Observed, author C.S. Lewis shares the journal he wrote after the death of his wife Helen Joy Gresham, nee Davidman. As his stepson observed, few could have written so powerfully and honestly about his pain and grief, few would, and fewer still would have published the journal (Lewis xix). Lewis begins his journal as an attempt to face and temper his grief. “Come”, he says, “What do we gain by evasions? We are under the harrow and can’t escape. Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable (28).” I do understand why we avoid it if at all possible, but I also see that sharing it can bring a little relief. It’s as if releasing it into the air sets it free from holding us captive. And it certainly is powerful how we remember our parents on such days–so very different from when they were alive. Mothers and Fathers days transform into orphan days unless you have children of your own. Holidays create a strange sense of remembrance. Like the phantom memory of a missing limb. And along with interesting observations (even though it may seem initially like a non sequitur), two of my favorite thinkers, John Stewart and Bill Moyers, have a great half hour discussion where about half way through Stewart starts talking about being a parent, feelings of sadness, and how he fights back against it. A really worthwhile interview to spend a few moments on.

UPDATE: Interesting how the anti-war history of the “real” Mothers Day proclamation touches on that discussion too.

A man set the clockI was talking with a friend about what triggers people to plan for their eventual death and it seems the biggest reason is age. People automatically assume death is for the old when of course that’s really not the case. Here is a story covered by CNN about Miles Levin who is a teenager dying of cancer. For a news article it is sensitively done, although I tend not to consider this kind of event hard news so I temper the sensationalism of the story a bit for my own benefit. There is a comment from the CNN video that says Miles “has little time to make life matter” but in the grand sense we are all held to similar limitations, only he knows when his time will end and most of us do not. Of course I’m not immune to the fact that as a teenager he has not had the chances to experience as much of life as his elders have and that is what makes his observations especially poignant. That he uses his disease as an opportunity to comfort others is what makes him an exceptional human. I wonder what will happen to his blog after he dies? No one seems to be asking that. (Thanks to Epicenter for the link)

presidio pet cemetery Copyright © John Teoh 1997-2000If you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll know that I find euthanizing a pet one of life’s more difficult and painful experiences. Yesterday Paulina described the death of Pink “…the mangy old tom cat who has brightened my days” and I asked her if I could share her private feelings because I’ve always liked her descriptions and she writes in a way that is poetic without being squishy sentimental. Similar to love there are different kinds of grief. She mentions “pureform” grief, as in simple (not to be confused with simplistic)…undiluted with conflicting emotions. This puzzled me because my own experience with grief has always seemed so layered that finding a pure form of it would be like the pure distillation of anything: more intense, more powerful, not subtle at all. But she describes it better than I do (posted with her permission),

“..I’m a person where the grief hits in waves, maybe in private (not much of a weeper); and the form my grieving takes here is at times the disbelief kind–still expecting him to Show Up, bang on my door, jump into my lap when I am sitting outside reading, greet my car… one of the manifestations of pureform mourning: you just keep expecting the beloved, the departed to appear/re-appear…

I was also thinking about how, even more so than most human-animal relations, this was a relationship of mutual courtship, and not an arranged marriage. It was truly a situation where I had been observing Pink’s spriteliness/pluck/beauty/drollery/humor/indefatigeable charm for months, letting him gradually approach–and I still remember the day he first jumped into my lap. He roamed around the nabe, and I was always amused and admiring of him: for a cat, he had true sentience and interactivity (would always look you in the eye. would talk with you, absolutely non-skittish and fearless, doglike in his aplomb. He would demand to be held or skritched or lie on your stomach, but then he would wander off…). and with time, he and I became ever more bonded, spent more time together. People told me that in the last year or so, he hung around my house even when I wasn’t home…There are no complicating ambivalences as most human love relationships have. He and I just dug each other, enjoyed each other’s company, and grew ever more fond with time.

I seem to run into a Great cat about once a decade: Sentiment, [in the 70s], Buck was my lord of flatbush I obtained from a private rescue catlady in queens in 1985; and Pink entered my life in 1995. I know I made the right decision to have him put to sleep (I noticed him drooling the day I brought him in to the vet, so obviously the tumor was really interfering with his ability to swallow) but the grief I feel over his death is of the most basic kind: of questioning why death has to exist (well, duh!) and why we lose those we love and all the classic dumbass shaking your hand against fate that all true mourners go through.

You don’t often find beings you connect with. Kindred spirits are so rare.

Pureform grief.”

At first I would think that missing something is such a human condition. Then I come home and my own cat is all over me as if he hasn’t seen me in weeks (no, it’s not about food) and I wonder if that’s just something we share with pets and something that happens with bonding of all kinds. Is it even a chemical thing? A form of pure emotion that manifests between two beings, happens with repeated contact and increases with mutual respect?

And strangely enough this mention of loss and cats reminds me of the final portion of “Last Words” published in the New Yorker after William Burroughs‘ death.

Thinking is not enough.
Nothing is. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience — any fucking thing. No Holy Grail, no Final Satori, no final solution. Just conflict. Only thing can resolve conflict is love, like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner and Calico. Pure love.
What I feel for my cats present and past.
Love? What is It?
Most natural painkiller what there is.
LOVE.

toweldaytowel.jpgIt feels like I outgrew Dilbert when office cubicle humor no longer seemed funny but tragic. I still think it is an entertaining strip, but most comic strips seem to be weak versions of their former selves anymore. Everyone can probably come up with a good reason why that might be, but what really struck me is that in abandoning the medium I lost the philosopher as well. I was reminded of him quite by accident because of his “goal post” called My Plans for Sainthood

“…My plan is to wait until it looks as if I only have a few years to live. Then I’ll become Catholic and hire a PR agent to document my many acts of charity and kindness. For example, I’ll start a leper colony in my backyard. That way I can do my good deeds without traveling. If the neighbors complain, I’ll just say, “Hey, you don’t see me complaining about your dog. And my lepers don’t bark every time a car goes by….its good to have goals.”

Which in itself is amusing and I could’ve left it at that, but then I read on a little bit more and found a bit of everyday reflection that was special enough to add. It’s called The Meaning of Meaning and I’ve quoted just a part of it,

“…I remember when Dilbert hit it big and it became clear that I would never again have to worry about money. It was a wonderful feeling, but it didn’t last. I went from happy to hollow with no warning. The first moment that I could afford any car I wanted, I lost interest in having a nice car. I simply couldn’t see the point, if there ever was one. Success is surprisingly disorienting…I measure my success by how many people would attend my funeral if I died tomorrow. I try to make sure that number grows every year. It’s a theoretical number, since I’m very healthy and plan to outlive all of you. But it’s the best measurement I can think of.”

Scott Adams (and my other favorite Adams) are just a few of the humorists who always manage important things to say about life, death the universe and everything. People recognize it and love them for it. The Douglas tribute was one of the more touching memorials I can remember so I’m sure Scott will get his wish for a grand send-off. If not he could always follow John Cleese’s lead and stage his own beforehand. With all the comedians I know and the great material I provide them, at least someone should have something funny to say at mine. I’m counting on it.

didion2.jpgIt’s not only the weather in California that is consistently different from the rest of the country but there is an attitude that goes with it that few authors have ever tried to explore. That’s why I’m so drawn to Joan Didion because her writing, especially Where I Was From, managed to help frame some of the ambivalence I feel about being a native daughter myself. There is a good review in the New York Times about it although I think they miss the sense of California dreaming she invokes. If you are ever curious about the entitlement most Californians seem to flaunt then reading this book will help you understand part of that mystique.

Making the cultural examination personal, explaining sensations as well as history, that is her true talent because The Year of Magical Thinking is one of those books that make you feel like a friend is in the room talking about how grief feels. Even with a mood of numb detachment, so many passages are spot on you will recognize yourself in them. Which is why a stage play adapted from her memoir called The Sound of One Heart Breaking makes so much sense. Here is one passage in particular that stuck with me,

Survivors look back and see omens, messages, they missed. They remember the tree that died, the gull that splattered onto he hood of the car. They live by symbols. They read meaning into the barrage of spam on the unused computer, the delete key that stops working, the imagined abandonment in the decision to replace it. …One day I was talking on the telephone in his office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message? Or had the message been lost before I touched the dictionary?…

This book won the National Book Award in 2005 and even on Amazon you can see how many people have bothered to leave reviews. It is a beautifully told story about a difficult subject. I hope this play comes to her old home town someday soon.

painscale.jpgFrom the what doesn’t kill you department, I had to laugh only because the descriptions from the Schmidt Sting Pain Index are so wonderfully rich. It made me consider creating a personal pain scale and how I would index those pains I’ve felt. After a bit of reflection I realized some of the worst pains weren’t physical at all.

Like comedy writers, a group of people getting together to describe their pain in a colorful way would be such therapy wouldn’t it? There are so many varieties and causes of pain and yet they are all also so familiar. And we all know that humor is an essential part of pain management, don’t we? Despite that I hesitated sharing it briefly because we aren’t used to talking about our pain. In fact pain in my family was something you learned to disguise and if you showed it you were weak. Well, in an effort to overcome my own training here is my personal scale, low to high, for pains that have stuck indelibly to my mind. (As they say, it’s all in your head):

1.0 Dental work: a dull mildly throbbing pain that blurs vision and sneaks up in intensity after the medication has worn off. Like biting down on your tongue and drawing blood after chewing ice.
2.0 Ear surgery: a stinging spinning pain that prevents standing or lying down. Imagine being slapped on the side of the head with an industrial rotary sander.
2.5 Being dumped: a quick, sharp kick to the chest that makes difficult to swallow and creates an internal implosion. Like being thrown from a horse down a steep dirt embankment (and yes, that happened. I thought I broke my neck because I couldn’t breathe. Being rejected is similar).
3.0 Getting beat up: Strikingly similar to 2.0 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index only instead of revolving door, I would suggest several flights of cement stairs. Crunchy and intense are good adjectives.
4.0 Going through divorce: an extended burning yet bittersweet pain that affirms what you thought you already knew but just couldn’t put your finger on. Often requires extended self abuse and excessive consumption of alcohol. Similar to a prophylactic appendectomy.
4.5 Putting a pet to sleep: Surreal, sharp and manically freakish pain. Like watching an open wound being cauterized with a hot poker over an open flame or resetting a compound fracture with a brick. Makes you wish you could pass out.
5.0 Watching a loved one die: Brutal and numbing. Like being stretched, drawn and quartered for hours after being whipped, you just want it to end quickly, but are too tough to plead.

How about pains you’ve felt? I’m sure childbirth has a good description. And getting shot. Or breaking glass in a car accident. I’m not making light of pain, it’s an unavoidable part of being human. The trick is to maintain compassion while examining it from different angles (like Dr. Nuland does in his award-winning book How We Die), which tends to make it easier to share, and in turn, makes it easier to bear.

And before we part, I’ll share a joke told by Harry Shearer today about the kerfluffle over Houdini’s painful death. “What will they find there? … Geraldo Rivera!” owww.

UPDATE: Just in case you’re shy of showing your soft side, I just came across the press release for the National Tour to Encourage People to Let It Out funded by, no kidding, the Kimberly-Clark (aka Kleenex) folks. Here’s an unintentionally amusing quote from the study, “Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Americans believe New Yorkers let it out the most. However, just 38 percent of New Yorkers say they let it out in the last week, compared with half of Los Angeles residents and 44 percent of those from Chicago and Washington, D.C.” (Here is study itself, Letting It Out in America: The Social Landscape for Expressing Emotions (PDF; 76 KB)) So, when was the last time you let it out?

UPDATE 2: Pain Detection and the Privacy of Subjective Experience Source: American Journal of Law & Medicine. “I suggest that while the use of neuroimaging to detect pain implicates significant privacy concerns, our interests in keeping pain private are likely to be weaker than our interests in keeping private certain other subjective experiences that permit more intrusive inferences about our thoughts and character.”

bmtemple.jpgWhere is it okay for you to cry? In a room alone? Usually that’s where most of us do it. I was chatting with a friend this weekend about supportive communities for people grieving any kind of loss (divorce, death, abandonment) and the topic of places where it feels safe to cry came up. Of course there are grieving centers across the country, usually for teens and children but generally supportive of anyone in need. They provide counseling to help people move on and cope with loss. Their mission is not to create sanctuaries that silently allow people to openly show and share their grief.

Then I remembered the temple built at Burningman in 2001. If you haven’t heard of this yearly festival in the Nevada desert just search on the term and you’ll find enough social analysis and fan pages to keep you busy for months. Fundamentally it is a gathering of people who challenge perceptions of art and intentional community in a big way and you’ll always hear “burners” speak with a kind of awe about their whole experience–but the festival and its community are not exactly what I’m focusing on here. What fascinates me are the temporary temples built out on the Playa by installation artists David Best and Jack Haye and a crew of dedicated builders each year. Their structures constructed out of salvaged materials, elicit powerful reactions and are stunning and emotionally powerful spaces.

The Mausoleum or “Temple of Tears” was built to allow visitors to grieve death in a social space without having to analyze their reactions. During the event its altars were stacked with contributions, mementos, and tributes to the dead, and participants covered its walls with inscriptions. On entering the silence and focused attention of the crowd gathered there was always apparent. This complex and eloquent monument to the departed moved many people to tears. Pilgrims visiting it were encouraged to write prayers on the walls, mourning loved ones and commemorating those who had passed away. At the end of the festival, Best hosted a mass ritual of grief and burned his masterpiece to ash. And then he built another one, and another and another.

Art therapy often helps people overcome grief through the creation of talismans or ritual tools from found and discarded materials. They become physical symbols of pain and catalysts for creative catharsis. The social ritual of burning this amazing work of art was as powerful as seeing the structure constructed. Just think if there were the possibility of this kind of artistic ritual incorporated into the grieving process more often how liberating it would be.

I couldn’t wait until tomorrow to share this. I love this man. Jimmy Stewart’s voice and his quiet, calm delivery that gets me every single time. And the reading of this poem about his dog Beau is as beautiful as it gets. I agree with Mark, if listening to this doesn’t make your eyes water, you are made of stone.

Jimmy Stewart reading poem

(Thanks so much to Hyperliterature.com)

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