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

“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!)

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.

Making sense of our finite lives

From a BBC news article, “I think that there is a huge role for philosophical reflection as a way of changing our attitude towards events over which we have no control…We have to learn to make sense of a finite life.” Philosopher Havi Carel uses the tools she understands best to place a personal perspective on her own terminal illness. She is working on a book due out in the fall titled Illness (The Art of Living). I’m sure it will contain reflections similar to the one’s she mentions in the longer article of last March from The Independent,

“Illness breaks down the neutrality and transparency of our bodily existence. But it has also given me perspicuity. I observe my life and the lives of others and see them for what they are: brief, full of emotion and agony, activity and joy. I see people arguing over nothing, worrying about wrinkles and careers. Illness makes you immune to that. From the loneliness into which my illness forced me, I became able to see the world anew.”

Her’s is a different way to view illness: as an emotional world that can incorporate well-being and the possibility that you can be ill and still happy. It is an unexpected hypothesis and one that depends on a different and more creative approach and attitude than most of us are used to, or maybe more than we are even comfortable with. After all, no one says they’re sick or terminally ill with a smile. Or do they? Which is why this a useful bit of mind-bending.

To be sure Dr. Carel has creativity to spare. On doing a bit of further research I found an article she authored (from SCAN, The Journal of Media Art and Culture) that appears to draw from similar themes only in a very off-beat and fascinating way, with a really terrific bibliography at the end. I won’t reveal too much about it since you only have to read the first paragraph of the link to see where she takes the essay, but I will say it involves illness as a metaphor to one of the most horrific monster movies of all time. The one that completely freaked me out when I was a kid and to this day I can’t bring myself to ever watch again. To draw such parallels you certainly do need to be an out-of-the-box thinker. (Thanks to Chris at Crooked Timber for the heads-up).

Adagio, with feeling

Aesop's fable, Tortoise and HareAlthough it has a bland headline, this article from the NYTimes is so much more important and interesting than that other story grabbing attention about the guy who bought a coffin branded as a can of PBR beer (you can search for it but I won’t bother).

I find this idea of “slow medicine” compelling because I’m familiar with similarly named movements, like slow food, and slow leadership. Such labels are more honestly about simply increasing personal awareness of your environment and those conscious decisions we each make about how to best operate within that environment. They also all seem to echo the meditative principles of the Eightfold Path where the wisdom and ethics of alleviating suffering are really about doing the right thing.

I think the conflict we feel when it comes to end of life care relates to the values we project onto others–the choices we would make for ourselves in similar situations, which might not be the best choice for another. For example I remember my brother, in emotional distress, telling me we had to do everything possible to “save” our father, “to give him a fighting chance.” Dad was at that moment in and out of consciousness, breathing artificially, in an ICU due to a virulent strain of pneumonia. Since he couldn’t be consulted (and I only suspected what he’d want based on my own prejudice) what was I to do? Play the angel of death? I asked my brother to what end would we be keeping him alive? He had suffered several strokes and was blind in one eye. He had been nearly deaf for years and to add insult to injury he suffered from dementia associated with Alzheimer’s. How heroic should we tell the doctors and nurses to be? In hindsight I understand and still remember my brother’s panic. Doing anything at all seemed better than the waiting and helplessness of a bedside vigil. He was angry with me and lashed out by saying he wouldn’t want to be under my care because I’d probably pull the plug the first chance I had. It was a difficult situation and hard to hear. Just like this list from the CDC on who gets lifesaving care in a pandemic is a difficult one to read.

As the doctor in the article states, our love of life has predisposed us to aggressive care. I don’t believe the real question is even about cost or risk. It requires we ask when our honor, dignity and humanity requires that while we may not welcome it, we allow death to take its course because it is the right path. And the right answer will often be hard to accept, making the right choice life-changing.

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.