Monday, September 23, 2013

my life is not this steeply sloping hour






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My life is not this steeply sloping hour,
in which you see me hurrying.

Much stands behind me: I stand before it like a tree:
I am only one of many mouths
and at that, the one that will be still the soonest.

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death's note wants to climb over—
but the dark interval, reconciled,
 
They stay here trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.

–Rainer Maria Rilke






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image Mark Bridger,
via datura





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Sunday, September 22, 2013

the language of grief






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I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.
In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby.
Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.
Baby, drink milk.
Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words:
Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug,
fluent now in the language of grief.


–Amy Hempel
Reasons to Live





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image via buffleheadcabin




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Friday, September 20, 2013

on survival







You are too much concerned with past and future.
It is all due to your longing to continue, to protect yourself against extinction. 


And as you want to continue, you want others to keep you company, hence your concern with their survival. 

But what you call survival is but the survival of a dream.


–Nisargadatta Maharaj 



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Friday, September 13, 2013

from The Five Stages of Grief





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The night I lost you
someone pointed me towards
the Five Stages of Grief
Go that way, they said,
it’s easy, like learning to climb
stairs after the amputation.

And so I climbed …
After a year I am still climbing, though my feet slip
on your stone face.
The treeline
has long since disappeared;
green is a color
I have forgotten.

But now I see what I am climbing
towards: Acceptance
written in capital letters,
a special headline:
Acceptance
its name is in lights.

I struggle on,
waving and shouting.
Below, my whole life spreads its surf,
all the landscapes I’ve ever known
or dreamed of. Below
a fish jumps: the pulse
in your neck.

Acceptance. I finally
reach it.
But something is wrong.
Grief is a circular staircase.
I have lost you.



—Linda Pastan






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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Death Café



Death has become too sanitised.
It needs raucous laughter and a little bit of living to make it real again.







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Several days after leaving Winchester and walking the South Downs Way through southern England, filming ourselves and the landscape, and endlessly talking, we reached the perilous cliffs of Beachy Head. From these vertically pitched, chalk-white heights, desperate souls have flung themselves to a brutal end, and countless ships have been wrecked at their rocky base. I’d imagined May sunshine, and us all sitting in a circle on the grassy cliff top. But as we approached our journey’s close, rain thrashed down, gales blew, and I could no longer see the cliff edge for fog rising from the sea. In the distance, I could just make out the outlines of crosses — memorials to past suicides. Then I spotted a table and, as I got closer, blue and yellow balloons tied by strings to its legs, dancing, hysterical, in the wind. Cake stands held green-iced sponges — one, topped with plastic lambs, another with the Way’s Long Man of Wilmington drawn on it in white icing. A Union Flag stirred in the air, its pole poking up from a sponge topped with green hills and a cowshed.

I had joined ‘A 100-Mile Conversation’ halfway through. A film project by the London artists Nathan Burr and Louis Buckley, it had progressed, in real time, from Winchester, across the M3 motorway, down through the Chilcomb Valley, then east along the coast. The purpose? To discuss suicide. Bringing the cake had been my idea. How apt, I’d thought, how crazy even, to celebrate the project’s end by drinking tea on a cliff edge; how right, somehow, to celebrate life with an abundance of cake at a beauty spot marred by the sadness of suicide jumpers.

One month later, and I’m tangled up with cake and death again. I’m at a Death Café, drinking loose-leaf Assam at London’s Royal College of Art with eight strangers. We finger mugs and wipe cake crumbs from our lips. I’ve set the others an exercise. A petite woman beside me reads from a sheet of paper on the tablecloth: ‘The first words that came to mind when I thought of the word death,’ she smiles, ‘were fucking bloody shit.’ ‘Death Cafés’ were a frequent topic of conversation on the 100-mile walk: the two had much in common in wanting to probe people’s personal connection to death. I’d attended several, intrigued by the dynamics that might unfold there, but also drawn there by personal loss. Now I was hosting my own.

The guests took turns to voice their thoughts and feelings across a wide range of subjects. How does it feel to lose a parent? What is existence? What matters most to us in life? We talked about the Mexican Day of the Dead, suicide memorials and Freud’s death drive. Would we live forever, if we had the chance? To embalm or not to embalm? And, cremation — what do we do with those ashes; ‘our grandparents were left on top of the fridge freezer for decades’, one person recalled. On this occasion, women outnumbered men. Some of us had plenty of experience of death, others, little or none. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to talk. What is death like? What exactly are we afraid of? To what degree do our ideas on death influence how we live?

I saw my first dead body when I was 19 — the mother of a very close friend. As I’d hovered beside her, terrified, certain that at any moment she would sit back up in bed, I glanced over at a vase of flowers on the bedside table, bought the week before. I couldn’t take my eyes off those flowers — in my memory, they’re white — unable to comprehend how they could live on, when she did not.

I was no braver when my mother suffered a stroke and was kept alive for three years by whirring machines and feed drips. She lay silent and still in a nursing-home bed. I began to feel her silence as my silence, her paralysis as my own. I couldn’t tell friends about the dark thoughts circling my brain; could no more move on with my life than she could escape hers. My father died 15 years later, during which time we met only once. In their different ways, each of my parents’ deaths was prefaced by silence; and so, to my first Death Café, silence was what I carried with me.

The Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz writes of the imperative to liberate death from what he calls ‘tyrannical secrecy’ — tyrannical, presumably, because whatever we remain quiet about enslaves us to our fears. In his 2010 book, Cafés Mortels: Sortir la Mort du Silence, or ‘bringing death out of silence’, he addresses the shameful irony of how, in our modern, Western society of communication, ‘people have secrets that bully’. Crettaz has been hosting cafés morsels — social gatherings that put death at the centre of conversation — since 2004, in salons, bistros and private houses across Switzerland and France. In 2011 they were imported to the UK by a British Buddhist called Jon Underwood, and renamed Death Cafés. Around 1,000 people have so far attended Death Cafés in England, Wales, the US, Canada, Australia and Italy.

‘I come from a mountain background, where people start talking about death when they are just little children,’ Crettaz told The Boston Globe in 2010. ‘I wanted to reproduce that — but where? I’d prefer a public square, but then someone suggested the café. It was a place where people shared intimacies, but in a relaxed way.’ In Death Cafés, conversation is driven by ideas and questions that people never dared express before. Although Death Cafés do not offer grief therapy, private losses are, inevitably, shared: people talk movingly about suicide, accidental deaths, miscarriages, stillbirths, abortions. Parents of disabled children admit they can no longer cope; a son reveals how he practises a funeral rite for his mother — even though she’s still alive.

Yet cafés mortels are also vital places, often raucous with laughter. Speaking about death scrubs away our facades, brings us closer to who we really are. There’s a sense of liberation in such honesty, compounded by the idea that in talking about death, one is somehow breaking a taboo. Crettaz says that death is ‘a scandal, a ghost that lives with us. But the goal is to get creative and make it a non-destructive ghost’. He says: ‘I am never so in tune with the truth as during one of these soirées. And I have the impression that the assembled company, for a moment, and thanks to death, is born into authenticity.’

Over the past century, in North America and Europe, dying has increasingly been concealed behind hospital or nursing-home walls and the dead are banished from their own memorial services. But for the previous 40,000 years, the pattern was very different. As the writer and funeral director Thomas Lynch notes in The Good Funeral (2013): ‘Whatever afterlife there is or isn’t, human beings have marked their ceasing to be by going with their dead — to the tomb or the fire or the grave, the holy tree or deep sea, whatever sacred space of oblivion we consign them to.’

The shift in attitudes that Lynch describes was famously documented by Jessica Mitford, whose book The American Way of Death (1963) balked at the sanitation that accompanied the mass commercialisation of the funeral industry. Undertakers, Mitford complained, had become ‘morticians’, coffins were ‘caskets’, corpses ‘loved ones’. Death and dying had been transformed into disappearing acts. Lynch remarks that rates of cremation (the ultimate disappearance, and below five per cent in Mitford’s time) have risen in the decades since to nearly 50 per cent. The cost of dying, he says, has been rising faster than the cost of living.

At my father’s funeral, inside that modern, white church with its sterile altar and impossibly large flower arrangements, the pews had stood empty, except for where his wife, two elderly friends and my sisters and I were seated. The vicar spoke of my dad’s love of fast cars — his only intimate detail. Towards the end of his oration, music started blasting from speakers and the tall, crimson curtains around my father’s coffin began to draw. His wife jumped up from her seat, and my sisters and I followed, rushing towards those curtains, hurling our red roses through the ever-shrinking gap.

Just as the ancient Greeks placed honey cakes in graves to appease Pluto’s hound Cerberus, who guarded the gates of Hades, might not I too appease the gods?

If we can’t look at our dead in the flesh, how can we talk about them? They become as absent from our speech as they were at their funerals. If the death industry really has been ‘Mitfordised’, as Thomas Lynch suggests — drained of ritual, of what’s sacred — then what is real? How can we expect to have an authentic, human response to our own mortality?

Death Cafés help repair our relationship with farewell rites, largely because they put ritual back into death and mourning. A Death Café is a ritual space, built chair by chair, cup by cup. Its ritual objects are the tea tray, pot, milk jug, tablecloth. These mundane items are essential to how it works. Guests sit around a table and commit to staying for the duration (usually two hours). The host holds the space, administers ritual objects (pen and paper) and performs any rites (pouring tea, cutting cake).

But its chief ritual items are food and drink. If food equals flesh, and if eating grounds us in our bodies, then ritual food can help us contact what’s spiritual. This symbolic idea of food spreading holy aura — a kind of contagious magic — is common to many religions: from the Hindu custom of eating food and water that has been offered to, or come into contact with a god or goddess, to the wine and starch wafer ‘host’, representing the blood and body of Christ in the Christian Eucharist. As the 13th-century poet and mystic Hadewijch of Brabant wrote, ‘love’s most intimate union is through eating, tasting, and seeing interiorly’. At the Death Café, carrot cake and Darjeeling help prepare the way for us to consume, assimilate, become — not God, or another deity — but ourselves. Or perhaps, as one guest suggested: ‘Have your ashes baked into a cake, and your friends can eat you!’

In the three years leading to my mother’s death, if my sisters or I felt momentarily overwhelmed, the kettle would go on and the tea bags would come out. These ceremonies made us feel normal in an abnormal world. The mugs of strong tea were sustaining, but they were also markers on the path of my own mourning. They said: ‘Enough crying. Pull yourself together. Drink up.’ I could not yet bury my dead, but I could still have my rituals. Just as the ancient Greeks placed honey cakes in graves to appease Pluto’s hound Cerberus, who guarded the gates of Hades, might not I too appease the gods? Might one of them not take pity, and ferry my mother, who for now was consigned to limbo, across the Styx to the Underworld?

For a long time, it never occurred to me that what brought me to my first Café — a desire to understand my fear of death — masked a deeper terror. It took many more mugs of tea around strangers’ tables. It took hearing about a shy 19-year-old’s loss of his father, and how a car crash had subsequently killed his step-dad. It took the pretty funeral director whose kayak had overturned while she was white-water rafting, confessing that as she began drowning she felt nothing but joy. It took the white-haired hypnotherapist, draped in chunky beads, saying how only that morning she’d been bagging up her dead husband’s clothes. It took these and many more Death Café confidences before I realised that death had always been easy to be afraid of, like a bump in the night: the spooky face at the window — out there, but still far away. Life, on the other hand, was here, now, and it was far more treacherous.

I no longer see death as some looming avenger, but rather as a final change in life’s constant flux. I know that chewing it over can help us reflect decisively on our existence, whether we’re devising ‘bucket lists’, or attempting to come to terms with the ‘unfinished-ness’ of living: accepting that the knots of our lives will always remain frayed, or undone.

At the cliff-top tea party back in May, after, wet-fisted and shivering, we’d gorged ourselves on green mounds of ‘hill’ cake (an odd act of transubstantiation: swallowing the very landscape we’d walked through); when most of us were drifting towards the warmth of car heaters or the sanctuary of the local pub, I turned and looked back at the table with its soggy tablecloth and puffy wet sandwiches to see the last stragglers scooping up what was left and flinging it from the cliff edge. I watched cakes fly up in the air, hunks hurled off Beachy Head only feet from those white crosses. Balloons circled, free, in a white sky. This act felt symbolic. Let us eat, let us celebrate living; and then let us give it all back to the abyss — the drop that waits over the edge, that’s only, ever, a few steps away.


by Clare Davies
Published on 11 September 2013
aeon magazine



Clare Davies is writing a memoir about her experiences with epilepsy as part of her PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. She also writes a blog on tea, cake and death. She lives in Hove, by the sea.






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via buffleheadcabin
Photo by Charlie Abad/Getty



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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Heron Rises From The Dark, Summer Pond






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So heavy
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings

open
and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks

of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.

Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is

that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable
that ascension is not possible,
though everything seems so inert, so nailed

back into itself--
the muskrat and his lumpy lodge,
the turtle,
the fallen gate.

And especially it is wonderful
that the summers are long
and the ponds so dark and so many,
and therefore it isn't a miracle

but the common thing,
this decision,
this trailing of the long legs in the water,
this opening up of the heavy body

into a new life: see how the sudden
gray-blue sheets of her wings
strive toward the wind; see how the clasp of nothing
takes her in.

–Mary Oliver





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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

the distinction between past, present, and future





 
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Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. 
People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. 


—Albert Einstein





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Sunday, September 8, 2013

In Praise of Mortality







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We set the pace.
But this press of time --
take it as a little thing
next to what endures.

All this hurrying
soon will be over.
Only when we tarry
do we touch the holy.

Young ones, don't waste your courage
racing so fast,
flying so high.

See how all things are at rest --
darkness and morning light,
blossom and book.


–Rainer Maria Rilke
Sonnets to Orpheus, Part One, XXII






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image via datura
 



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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

In Passing




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On the Canadian side, we're standing far enough away the Falls look like photography, the roar a radio. In the real rain, so vertical it fuses with the air, the boat below us is starting for the caves. Everyone on deck is dressed in black, braced for weather and crossing against the current of the river. They seem lost in the gorge dimensions of the place, then, in fog, in a moment, gone. In the Chekhov story, the lovers live in a cloud, above the sheer witness of a valley. They call it circumstance. They look up at the open wing of the sky, or they look down into the future. Death is a power like any other pull of the earth.
The people in the rain gear with the cameras want to see it from the inside, from behind, from the dark looking into the light. They want to take its picture, give it size— how much easier to get lost in the gradations of a large and yellow leaf drifting its good-bye down one side of the gorge. There is almost nothing that does not signal loneliness, then loveliness, then something connecting all we will become. All around us the luminous passage of the air, the flat, wet gold of the leaves. I will never love you more than at this moment, here in October, the new rain rising slowly from the river.

–Stanley Plumley



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Monday, September 2, 2013

questions





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How does a part of the world leave the world?

How can wetness leave water?


–Rumi






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image via vivre !





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Sunday, September 1, 2013

妈妈 (Child)






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A poem, 'simultaneously unbearable and exquisite,'
in Chinese with English translation by Alex Tang,
a Toronto-based earthquake engineer.



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孩子(Mom)
快 (Hurry up)
抓紧妈妈的手 (Tightly hold your Mom’s hand)
去天堂的路 (The road to heaven)
太黑了 (is too dark)
妈妈怕你 (Mom is afraid that)
碰了头 (you hit your head)
快 (Hurry up)
抓紧妈妈的手 (Tightly hold your Mom’s hand)
让妈妈陪你走 (Let Mom keep you company)

妈妈 (Child)
怕 (I am afraid)
天堂的路 (The road to heaven)
太黑 (is too dark)
我看不见你的手 (I cannot see your hand)
自从 (since)
倒塌的墙 (the wall collapsed)
把阳光夺走 (it took the sun light away)
我再也看不见 (I cannot see )
你柔情的眸 (your lovely eyes again)

孩子 (Mom)
你走吧 (You can go)
前面的路 (the road in front of you)
再也没有忧愁 (has no sorrow any more)
没有读不完的课本 (there are no books that you cannot finish reading)
和爸爸的拳头 (and your father’s fist)
你要记住 (you have to remember)
我和爸爸的摸样 (my face and your father’s face)
来生还要一起走 (let’s finish walking this road together in our next life)

妈妈 (Child)
别担忧 (do not worry)
天堂的路有些挤 (the road to heaven is a bit crowded)
有很多同学朋友 (I have a lot classmates and friends)
我们说 (we all say)
不哭 (don’t cry)
哪一个人的妈妈都是我们的妈妈 (anyone’s Mom is our Mom)
哪一个孩子都是妈妈的孩子 (any child is Mom’s child)
没有我的日子 (the days without me)
你把爱给活的孩子吧 (give your love to the children alive)

妈妈 (Mom)
你别哭 (don’t cry)
泪光照亮不了 (tears cannot light up the road)
我们的路 (our road)
让我们自己 (let us)
慢慢的走 (walk slowly)

妈妈 (Child)
我会记住你和爸爸的模样 (I will remember your face and father’s face)
记住我们的约定 (remember our appointment)
来生一起走 (of walking together in our next life)






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via Andrew C. Revkin,
the NY Times Earth Blog
May 22, 2008



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