The Real Thing and the Performance

Today I watched someone die. I had watched him become weaker and weaker over the last two days, and this morning he was too weak to stand or get out of bed. I sat and held his hand and gave him water mixed with ice chips that he seemed to gratefully take in. He had tremors for a while then he subsided, and for a time the only sounds in the room were the ssslip, chuuunk, ssslip, chuuunk of the oxygen machine and the rattle of him trying to get breath into his lungs. After a time, the breaths got further and further apart until there was an exhalation with no inhalation. And he was dead. It was peaceful.

We all sat with him in the room and said our goodbyes. We shared memories and stories as we stayed with him. We were waiting until his daughter, driving furiously home, came here before we called the police and got society involved. His daughter came, said her goodbyes, and then we called. And that’s when the natural world ended and the performance began.

Flashing lights, hurried steps, uniforms and blaring radios. His simple passing, as natural as a birth, was transformed into high drama. And then later, the funeral home people arriving with their blue latex gloves and their hastily donned ties, for respect. They zipped him into a bag and carried him somewhat clumsily down the ramp, onto the gurney, into the anonymous sports utility vehicle.

Maybe the processing of death in a ‘civilized’ society has to be this performance. But I was privileged enough today to be shown the real thing; the quiet harmony and natural rightness of a passing when its time has come.

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The Ho in Hosting

‘Tis the season of houseguests and if you live in a desirable summer location like I do (on a lake), not only do you want to share, others also want you to share. But first off, I want to say to anyone reading this who has been a guest at my house that this post is NOT about you. Obviously, if I were going to complain about certain houseguests, I wouldn’t be doing it in a public blog. I would do it behind their backs.

However, based on extensive houseguest experience, I’d like to give a list of Do’s and Don’ts, because I’ve found that some people just don’t seem to know the etiquette and effort involved in being a houseguest.

DO bring food. Assume that the beautiful, but remote location your host lives in also precludes the ready availability of grocery stores. If you are staying two nights or more (god forbid) you MUST bring at least one dinner.

DO bring alcohol. Lots of it. Even if you don’t drink, believe me, your host will.

DO bring a gift—just a little something—for your host so that she feels like you appreciate her effort. (If you bring enough food and alcohol, you can dispense with the gift.)

DO offer to help with the cooking and cleaning up. Your host will most likely refuse, but this little dance must be honored.

DO offer to drive if you and your host are going someplace. If your host insists on driving, DO offer to pay for gas, or buy your host lunch.

DO allow your host some downtime. Assume she lives in this remote location because she likes her solitude. Entertain yourself occasionally.

The Don’ts are pretty simple: DON’T not do any of the DO’s.

And in addition:

DON’T ask your host to bring you a little plate of cheese and crackers to tide you over as you relax in the living room while she is making dinner for everyone after having driven you both around the state for five hours.

DON’T be passive/aggressive. This is being passive/aggressive in case you’re not sure: “Oh, I thought we’d go to that crocheted marine life exhibit that is eighty miles away and you’d drive since I drove all the way up here to see you and we can catch up on things while we get there.” If your host is not interested in marine life rendered in crochet, she’s NOT going to want to drive you to that exhibit under the guise of “catching up”. But she will, if she is a good host. She will just feel like a ho, that’s all. And you will not be invited back. Ever.

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Apart and A Part

I visited Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire this week. I’ve been to three or so Shaker museums but this one had a distinctly different feel to it. It felt less like a museum and more like a village that was once thriving and is now gone—like a ghost town. Walking through the buildings, two things struck me. One, I no longer had the longing I had previously always felt in a Shaker village—the sort of longing that made me wish I could have lived there in its heyday. And two, I thought about the Shaker credo: “Hands to work, hearts to God” in a different way.

 Looking at the rooms furnished with Shaker tables, chairs, baskets and those famous built in cupboards—revered designs that have spawned industries and collections—I finally really understood that it wasn’t—for the Shakers—about the stuff or the efficiency or the order; it was about their faith. Of course I knew that their spirituality was the underpinning of their communities, since I had read it over and over, back when I studied all things Shaker; but at Canterbury, with it’s unglamorous (and I mean that as a compliment) aspect something came to roost that hadn’t been there before. I saw the process behind the object and the belief behind the process.

This is what I understood: While the Shakers lived physically apart from the world in their self-sustaining communities, they didn’t deny the outside world; they interacted with it when it served their purposes–they knew they were a part of the bigger world and so a part of the larger whole. Apart and a part: both separate and part of the whole. The archetypal truth of being.

I am a basket maker and weaver loosely trained in “Shaker” basket making and weaving and this background helped me understand that craft is a manifestation of this belief in and acceptance of apart and a part. The final product may be apart from you; but in the doing of it you have become a part of the larger whole. The doing and the time spent are the worship and the offering, the connection to the whole. That’s why, for the Shakers, whatever they did had to be as perfect as possible, because each moment of time was a moment given to God—whatever you believe God to be.

A moment given to God—love that.

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Honest Writing/Honest Life

All appealing writing has one thing in common–it is honest. I struggle with that. It’s not that I’m a dishonest person; I’m about average in the honesty department.

Now that line right there—“I’m about average in the honesty department”—that’s dishonest writing, because first of all, how do I know how I stack up to everyone else in the honesty question–I don’t. And second, what is that line really saying? Nothing. It has a mushiness to it that is warning me—not honest writing.

I do know when my writing isn’t honest. But I try to get away with it anyway. Why? Laziness maybe, fear mostly. Honest writing is sharp and clear; it lances through an idea, spearing it and leaving it quivering in resonance. Dishonest writing, on the other hand, doesn’t reveal; it hides.The whole point of writing, however, is to reveal.

I started this blog to teach myself to write honestly. It is a sink or swim idea, since if I’m not honest, I’m wasting everyone’s time, including my own.

So each week, I struggle against the urge to hide behind pompous or vague phrases and safe ideas, to instead open myself up by honestly communicating something I believe in. To do anything less is disrespectful to the reader. The vulnerability that honesty demands is scary. But scary as it is, I think it’s crucial for perspective.

Ann LaMott, in her hilarious book on writing, Bird by Bird, sums it up perfectly when she writes about the fear of trying something new: “The worst that can happen is that you realize you’ve made a terrible mistake.”

That sentiment knocks some perspective into the effort or situation. It’s just me, and my little sense of who I am and what I think I am worth and what I can contribute.

It’s not that big a deal.

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