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.”

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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!)

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.

Were I with thee, wild nights would be our luxury

\That is a quote from an Emily Dickinson poem and the title of Joyce Carol Oates‘ new book, Wild Nights, Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway. Liane Hansen (NPR) interviewed Oates this morning and I learned this book is a group of fictional memoirs written in the style and voice of the authors which reinvent climactic moments toward the end of their lives.

I recently wondered if someone would create something like this, even mentioning Mark Twain, and here it appears! Amazing. I can’t wait to read it. The radio interview was too short but revealed a few real personal idiosyncrasies the stories were built on, opening with another great quote from James that JCO keeps posted above her desk: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” How true, we do what we can, we give what we have and as JCO says, “…we can, in times of emergency, be so different from our previous lives.” Which is how her reincarnation of James spending his last days working in a hospital changes him. In reality Dickinson never left her house after age 20 and left behind 776 insightful poems but in an alternate history JCO makes her into a replicant, a robot purchased for entertainment but who ends up instead revealing the poverty of her owner’s lives. Finally, Liane also briefly mentioned Ray Smith, Joyce’s husband of over 45 years, who passed away this last February which I’m sure made finishing this novel even more difficult for her. Her reply about how tired and unmotivated his passing has made her makes me wonder how much more she will feel compelled to write or if her “madness” has left with the departure of her long time companion’s support and strength. Well, it’s time to trundle off to the library to make another new book request. Sundays are a good day for that.

An ethical will by any other name

Last year Randy Paush and his 70-minute talk, now known as “The Last Lecture” become extremely popular. Now it has become an inspirational book containing “ideas for achieving one’s childhood dreams” which has spawned a “…contest seeking examples of great parental advice either dispensed or received.” I have mixed feelings about this.

I’ve read that Paush was astonished at his sudden notoriety and only cared about “…the first three copies of the book.” One of his friends said, “Randy never, ever had any expectation that his lecture would turn into the phenomenon that it has become. The main reason it was taped at all was so that his children, especially his younger two, would know something about him.” At around the 55 minute mark (where it deepens into something more than a professional resume) he shares his success depended on the blessings he was born with and talks about the wisdom imparted by those closest to him. A contest doesn’t quite mirror the intent.

Whether Paush (or hundreds of comments) inspires you or makes you cringe shouldn’t matter. Leaving something personal after death is very common. We all have something intimate to pass along. What should matter is that we be encouraged to do so regardless of children. While wisdom isn’t the strict purview of the dying, or even the old, those groups do tend to have a sharper focus on the essential. And despite Paush’s claim that the “headfake” of the lecture was that it wasn’t intended for the audience, his reflections enlightened everyone who saw it. I wish the Times had used the opportunity to promote ethical wills to their readership (which I’ve mentioned before). I realize all the hype over social media encourages us to feel like everyone must want to read our pearls of wisdom (honestly, they don’t). But unlike blog posts your “final love letter” isn’t addressed to the world. It is written to a few very specific people who mean the most.

There are already 324 comments (and counting) of people sharing their advice with strangers on a web page that will soon enough go dark without benefit to anyone. Whereas if they’d taken the same trouble to write these thoughts in a letter, included a photo or two, and put it in a safe place (–even reviewing it once in a while), it might just survive long enough to make a deeper impression. Much more valuable than a fleeting contest with a questionable prize. As much as I hate to admit it, I understand why people would rather leave a public comment than write a personal letter.

Funny, sweet, smart

The insightful Venn Diagrams of Jessica Hagy and the mind-bending humor and personal history of Demetri Martin (especially when he uses flip charts or drawings) are like pie and ice cream. Perfect, delicious, simplicity. I wonder if they collaborated it would be mind blowing amazing, or if their talents would cancel each other out. Maybe they even already know one another and share ideas. Anyway, together with “Wait, Wait” they are all good for a Sunday smile. See, it’s not all death and dreariness 24/7 around here. There are always times when a little humor steps in for balance.

Truth is for stenographers

Hicken’s fur bearing troutAn interesting line from “The Fake Memoirist’s Survival Guide, How to embellish your life story without getting caught.” It is the author’s final advice to would be memoir fabulists (a fabulous label, imho): “Feel free, however, to insist that you’re telling the “emotional truth.” The details don’t matter, as long as you’re painting an accurate picture of how you felt—real truth is for stenographers.” Yes, I sense he is being snide, and although not everyone will agree with my artistic sensibilities, I actually believe feeling is able to create an equally accurate picture of a person’s life.

Haven’t we always called them fish tales? I suppose when you’re still alive and getting an advance from a publishing house stretching the truth becomes a rather serious charge. Or maybe daring to cross the trip wire between stretching and bald-face lying is what makes people upset. In my eyes some of the best storytellers were the best embellishers. Perhaps when it comes to life stories critics feel that’s where honesty counts most (or at least more than day-to-day honesty)? A dirtier crime is plagiarism but harder to do in the context of biography, although there must already be a book out there somewhere that mashes up several interesting real biographies to create a whole new imaginary person? A conglomerate constructed from questionable biographies: the intrigue of a Mata Hari, the glamour of a Alice Sheldon, the fearlessness of a Beryl Markham

Regardless, like applying a little (fake) makeup, I’m not sure I’d want to write my own personal history without enhancement. Memory is selective and who’s to say I didn’t live it as I felt it. If after I die someone calls me a fish-teller I would hope a friend would stand proudly in my defense and say, “Aye, and from a Long Line of truth stretchers and myth mongers she is too!” That wouldn’t be so far from the truth. Sometimes stories are easier to tell if they come from the heart than from the head despite the obvious difference between personal history and formal historical research (often subtly manipulated for the audience as well). Ultimately even a tall tale from a deceased loved one is worth boxes upon boxes of certificates, public records and canceled checks. My advice is to encourage yours to leave you at least one.