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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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?

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.

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.

Distilling a life, into perfect words

sixwords.pngFor those of us intimidated by the idea of writing a biography, this new book shows that sometimes six words can be enough. Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure is, as NPR writes: “…sometimes sad, often funny — and always concise” and they posted a gallery of illustrated ones online. What I found interesting was this project began by using Twitter in a contest requiring you to sum up your life in six words (sponsored by the online magazine, Smith). Yet, as anyone who has ever tried to write a haiku can attest, finding those perfect six words can be pretty difficult. Simplicity is never really that simple, which is what makes this so brilliant.

When I first heard of Twitter in 2006 I thought it was simply another slightly foolish time waster for those people perpetually tethered to the net. After all, who cares what you’re doing every moment of the day. Then I heard it could be a viable alternative to the phone when communicating in a disaster. And now it seems to be the perfect tool for creating and sharing this kind of “life poetry.” Once again first impressions aren’t always the most reliable ones when it comes to evaluating technology. That doesn’t mean I’m going to suddenly start using it of course. But if I wanted to brainstorm and gather tidbits of easily digestible personal information it sure would be an entertaining option.

Pop culture post scripts

deadbug.jpgThe Dead Bug Funeral Kit comes with a 32-page Illustrated Buggy Book of Eulogies with Ribbon Bookmark, Casket, Grave Marker, White Clay Flower, Burial Scroll, and Pouch of Grass Seed.” So this is where I show a lack of a sense of humor (which usually I pride myself on). But as silly as this is, it’s not very green. A cardboard box would be much more appropriate. And it’s expensive, comparatively, considering I believe a good bug is a dead bug. But then bugs are just not my thing. Bugs need to decompose to enrich the soil. We all do for that matter. Wouldn’t it be better to teach our kids those lessons than purchasing treacle in a tin? Or at least have them construct it carefully themselves? Or hey, junior’s first lesson in cremation perhaps? After all, what kid doesn’t like to burn things.

Anyway, so it’s kitschy. Ok-fine. As far a pop culture goes I’m far more interested in interpreting the dream at the end of No Country for Old Men. You may consider that link a spoiler if you haven’t seen the film, so if you’re sensitive about such things, just come back to it later. All Cohen brothers films are worth seeing on the big screen. I went to see it today while carting around the apocalyptic anthology Wastelands (which surprisingly contains no Cormac McCarthy) and it’s no wonder I’ve lost some of my sense of humor. Bleak as these stories are (and pleasing to my catastropharian soul), it’s hard to be that concerned for insects that will remain, and likely rejoice, long after the rest of us are dead and gone.

UPDATE: And now death takes a holiday in South Korea where a little over $300 will get you a fake funeral. I admit, what people willingly spend their money on is often beyond me.

Memorial services correspondent

Solar video panel for gravestonesNow that sounds like quite a job title. Please someone, offer me this job? Not many people would find it as fascinating as I do–but if (the historical predecessor to Jon Stewart and the Daily Show) Ned Sherrin enjoyed it, you might say such work has more entertainment and enlightenment value than appears at first blush. In fact one of the many tributes to him said, “…Sherrin has in recent years also been memorial services correspondent of the Oldie magazine, because it was said he went to them all anyway. And in his autobiography published in 2005, Ned Sherrin, the Autobiography, he makes it clear he will continue to attend the memorial services of others until it is his turn.” He would attend funerals not just to write an obit, but to comment on them as a theater critic might review a play.

At the same time he gathered an anthology titled Remembrance: An Anthology of Readings, Prayers and Music Chosen for Memorial Services with proceeds to benefit an English hospice organization. Again ahead of his time, he believed everyone wanted to personalize (or orchestrate) their own memorial in some way rather than rely on what others might say. Strangely nowhere is described how his own funeral was performed. As an actor and writer I’d be surprised if he didn’t at least have a parting shot for his friends and fans. After all, isn’t a memorial a type of theatrical event? It’s a pity that not only is the above-referenced title out of print, but equally disappointing is I can find no record online of even one of his funeral review columns from the Oldie. Seems like although his life’s work is fondly remembered, the work itself has dropped into a black hole. (And yes, that is a pun.)

All that’s left to do now is let that job title segue nicely into “RIPtv” as yet another fascinating idea whose time is still yet to come? I’m almost shocked that some producer hasn’t at least tried to cash in on this yet. [Thanks to Alana at obituaryforum.com]