Unanswerable questions

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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Getting and giving

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 heart wants what it cannot have

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…

This is your brain on compassion

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?!

We’re trying, but we’re not sure how

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.

Crying in public

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!

Grief observed

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.