Tag Archives: death

The Grim Repurposer

A while back, I wrote about my mother’s 20-year-old TV – a Sony Color Rear Video Projector, model KP-41EXR96 – and how it outlived her and how I felt compelled to keep it going, in her memory. It has been eleven years, almost exactly, since she left this mortal coil and, now, the television has decided to join her. It finally flatlined; the three color lines of red, blue and green overlapping into a kind of bow tie formation: crossing in the center and separating fanlike at the outer edges; a butterfly with no membrane left between filaments in its wings, only the skeletal remains. In its last gasps, the image would try to expand and go to a black screen with the word “VIDEO” in green appearing in the upper right-hand corner. You could see its jittery struggle and then, when it could sustain it no longer, the picture would collapse back down into the three lines: the green one, although a mere eighth of an inch thick, still visibly sporting the now distorted “video” in its condensed, narrow space.

Looking like some sort of other-worldly typography, I thought it was attempting to communicate something. Or was it, like “Hal” in 2001, A Space Odyssey, just deconstructing and returning to its most rudimentary programming? VIDEO, hmm. It was all about video, it was created for video, its mere existence was for the purpose of video, its lifeblood was video. Was it crying, “Mama?” Was I crying, “Mama?”

Then, click, it powered itself off. So, there it was: big blank screen, hulking carcass, weighing probably 200 pounds. I was reminded of that time, years ago, when our cat Matthew died in our house. Matthew was a cat whom we had inherited from someone else, so I called that former roommate of Matthew to let him know. He was sorry, but he had just recently lost his dog, and we talked about our losses. My recollection of that conversation is that, although we both were truly sad, there was the reality of life changing to death, instantly, and then leaving this physical thing – sometimes a largish thing, this body – to deal with. A practical matter of disposal (for want of a better term) that needed to be addressed. This set was the 200 pound dead elephant in the room.

Understandably, the TV set was not a living thing, so the absence of a personality was not being felt here. Nevertheless, there was a long history and a sense of duty and stewardship to get beyond. But, suddenly there was this corpse, and the room could use some breathing space (if you know what I mean), so, go it must. But how? I mean, it was big enough for the two of us to be buried in it, maybe with a little adjusting and bending, but it was large, larger than a Coupe de Ville trunk (if you know what I mean). And compounding this issue was that we wanted to do the right thing in disposing of it. I wasn’t thinking about a military send-off, but, instead, a responsible and ecological solution to our predicament; in other words, not a landfill. Heck, this thing could poison and pollute the Earth for generations to come. (This concept is something which I struggle with daily on a very small scale, like with a screw-top on a bottle.) Did I mention that this set was a behemoth?

So, the place of waste is a conundrum. I have always been of two minds: waste not, want not; and leave the smallest footprint possible. And there you have it – I am drowning in stuff, a) because I like it or can use it (sometime, somewhere) and b) because I want to get rid of it carefully and meaningfully – mindfully. I assume that someone made this item carefully and meaningfully and, having taken it in, I have the responsibility to move it along in the same manner. What to do?

Well, like a bolt from the blue, an email arrived from an area co-op that occasionally offers an organized effort for mindful disposal of electronics. We have been there before with numerous generations of now-defunct new technology. During that visit the items were weighed and we paid a reasonable per-pound price. Gulp! – the weight issue was scary this time. But this email said nothing about weighing, only that a donation to the recycler was expected. So, the new problem was, how does a two-person operation (us who live with this monster TV set) get it down from the second floor and out to our vehicle? Well, with some strategizing and a largish piece of cardboard, we managed to toboggan it down the long, thankfully straight stairway. It was unexpectedly and surprisingly easy!

We arrived at the recycling lot, fearful that we would be rejected; but, no, some eager young men met us with quizzical looks on their faces. What kind of television is that? they asked. How old is it? they marveled. Yes, it was made before they were born, but in surveying the assorted boneyard of old sets standing around, forsaken, in the parking lot, we spied some in wood furniture-style cabinets that were much older than ours. It must have been the size and bulk of the thing that startled the boys. I am sure they thought that they were surrounded by some old sci-fi movie props. Painful to admit, it all looked very familiar to me. As I pointed out to the young’ns, heck, the car we brought it in is way older than the television set. Anyway, they took it, bemusedly, to be recycled. A happier ending could not have been asked for.

I know I am a little on the wacko end of the spectrum about some of this stuff, although I do have a clear conscience. My sense is, though, that many people have no conscience at all, so they are probably happier and healthier than I am. Lucky, soulless beings that they are. But the issue of this dead device had me reeling and had put forth a new challenge for me (as if there weren’t enough already): of finding a place for its final resting place and finding placeness in the disposition of property. My mission was to balance the right combination of “out it goes” and it having absolutely no impact on anyone else, born or unborn. New term: the placeness of misplacelessness, matter into anti-matter. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. “VIDEO.”

Epilogue: We have replaced the old warhorse with a successor, really a predecessor – a still functioning 1980 17-inch tube TV set – the first purchase we made together in our newfound relationship. No remote control on this one but a still-perfect picture after 30 years. So much for age.

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He Was a Friend of Mine

The Grim Reaper works in mysterious ways, claiming some too soon and others a bit late. But his aim is true, regardless of the time or willingness of the spirit.

For Warren, it was too soon. I met Warren in 1986 when he and Janet bought the building next door at about the same time that we bought ours. There were some interesting connections that we shared from the get-go: people we already knew, a desire for unique live/work space, art and art-making. And, too, physically, our buildings shared connections: of the land’s history, of being held jointly by several generations of owner-occupiers and their entrepreneurial endeavors, and, of Warren and Janet’s structure having been erected on what was once our building’s orchard way back in the late 1800s. But there was also a connection of friendship and of finding our way simultaneously in our shared new neighborhood.

As working artists, Warren and I spent time together, visiting each other’s studios, talking about projects we were working on. We would take strolls through the neighborhood and find other artists who also were setting up camp – we had a kind of “art-dar” about locating them. In many ways our association was like a continuation of art school: studio visits, discussions, salons which Warren and Janet would throw. And, ultimately, Warren and I had some shows together, first in his large loft space and then in both houses, a distribution of works at both sites in which the attendees would flow from one building then out and into the other, making our houses connected again into a complex of art galleries. It was a great time. Later, Warren’s interests moved to temporary installations and performances. I remember heavy canvas boots with about forty long screws emerging from the soles, salvia plants and several dozen watering cans. Or mass-produced bunnies placed in nooks above doorways, crouched in out-of-context sites throughout the city. Warren’s work became a kind of guerrilla artfare but in such a gentle way.

When Dana was born, we were the ones who brought special pillows and a packed overnight bag to the hospital for the duration of their stay. During the sweltering summer, we bought a paddling pool to cool off in and our trio from next door would come over and join in. We have video tape of Dana kicking and bobbing in the water, just a few months old, looking like a small cork with limbs. When any of their or our relatives, largely from the Midwest, would visit, we would meet theirs and they ours. In many ways we felt like family. While Dana was small, Warren did a good deal of childcare and, once again, I would accompany the two of them as we ferreted out treasures in thrift stores or flea markets. Warren was an excellent dad, including his little girl in his life and being very much aware of her needs. And I loved the little color-packed ensembles he would dress her in – I assumed he dressed her because there was something very Warren in the patterns and the palette. When Dana was old enough to appreciate it, we all built a snow-woman together after a big snowfall. And when our steep hills became bobsled tracks, Warren would be among the first on the slopes with his super sled. I remember vividly the first time he took Dana down the hill and her resulting screams of utter delight together with his equal delight. Warren had that wonderful combination of mischievous childlike wonder, gentleness of spirit and a practical Midwestern groundedness.

Fast forward twenty-five years and a lot of change has occurred – Dana is a grown woman, Warren and Janet moved forward in separate directions, now a new tenant is inhabiting their house next door and Warren is no longer with us. We were invited to a party by the new neighbor, just having learned of the terrible news of Warren’s death, and we sat dumbfounded and sad, encircled by Warren in that huge space. I mean surrounded. It is so apparent that in his absence he is so present. He is everywhere in that place, from the design/build work that he did to make a warehouse a home, to the collection of farm implements that decorate the walls, including the array of fire-engine red and brass watering cans, to the hand-painted furniture that he covered with his own special calligraphy and color-palette, to the folding screens that he fashioned for the function of capturing contained space in a vast room – and they are beautiful free-standing works that bring art into the center of the room, plus the large number of ink and wash drawings, some with text, that are mounted on walls and which, together with the screens and the furniture, bring a sense of artwork from the perimeter walls, and weaves it through the space as all of it envelops you. Warren is there, still. It is a loving tribute to him that Janet has left it untouched. We went downstairs to his former studio and felt his presence there, too, with all his tools and boxes of materials. It was an empty feeling of sadness but, yet, there was a sense of placeness – of the artist manipulating his environment and leaving it forever changed.

I think one memory I will hold in my mind about Warren was this one: It was another of those cold snow-covered wintry days, darkness arriving too early and a kind of bleakness in the air. I looked out my window at the long night and there, along our shoveled sidewalk path was a landing strip of lights, small white paper bags nestled into the snow with a single lit candle in each. The effect was like flickering candles set adrift on a stream. The white snow holes glowing and illuminating the landscape. It was magical. It was Warren. 

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In Stone

“In the beginning there was the word.” So it says in John 1:1. (Which, for the non-scientific/rational-minded among us, makes a smidgen more sense than Genesis’ “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth,” because, obviously, that wasn’t the beginning, since there was a god already in place to do the creating, therefore necessitating an even earlier beginning when this god entity turned up. Of course, if you listen to others, who can be found hanging out and furtively smoking on the corner of Physics and Theology, there was no beginning, there is no end, no edge, or borders – the nothingness in which the universe expands always was, always will be, and goes on forever. having no physical or existential limits. If, of course, there is even such a thing as existence. Be still, my Earthbound, finite mind.)

We held my mother’s unveiling a week ago. For those out of that particular loop: In Jewish tradition, sometime between about six months and a year after a person’s death the family is called back to the grave; in the interim, the tombstone has been completed, and, for this occasion, it is covered with a cloth that is, at the end of a brief ceremony, torn off or in some way removed, to reveal – or “unveil” – the finished monument. It’s intended to be a cathartic event, providing, in today’s touchy-feely parlance, closure. (As if, with the death of a loved one, there can be such a thing, until, of course, you come to a close.)

The tombstone in question here has been in place since 1993, when my father died. His name and dates are on one side of the stone, and for all those years my mother’s side was blank, absent only a “Coming Soon – Watch this Location” sign. Likewise, and  strangely: Although the ground in front of the stone looked exactly the same whether on my father’s side or my mother’s, his had a placeness – not only because we knew that he was buried there (and that we humans are squeamish about stepping on graves), which posits a certain “sacred” authority to a patch of ground, but also because the stone had his name on it. Words defined the space; where his name on the stone ended was, in our minds, the dividing line between holy ground and just turf. We can’t imagine, really, the casket below (or, perhaps, don’t want to), but his name and accompanying words and numbers give the place a space, a solidity, even some sort of air rights. The half of the plot that would someday hold my mother’s remains was simply the place we stood on to look at my father’s half – like standing in front of a vacant store: no “there” there …until a sign goes up announcing the new tenant.

Now, my mother is there, and, when we removed that gauzy fabric, so was her name, chiseled in stone. And that made all the difference. Until then, she wasn’t there; once the words were visible, she was. Now her patch of ground was not what it had been – now, with the presence of her name and dates, it had power. In an out-of-sight-out-of-mind world, she is now officially, authoritatively, in sight, and that acknowledged “thereness” – in a bland, modern cemetery of such little “thereness” – is a strong placeness with emotional impact. The words make it – her death, her absence – real. It happened. It is final. Not the cemetery setting, not the slightly mounded earth, but those letters etched in that stone. The truth is there.

In the end there are the words. That’s all there is and, maybe, all there ever was.

 

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The Deer: A Solstice Tale

Staying in a wooded cottage in upstate New York for the winter solstice, surrounded by the serenity and beauty of nature, one expects all of life’s dramas to fade into a perfect cosmic balance. Fewer humans per square foot = harmonious, bucolic calm, right?

Our first morning there, we awoke to deer just outside our door and, had the door been open, it seemed that they would have come in to greet us. They appeared to be a family group, or a herd; obviously a large male, a few less bulky females and several gangly offspring. They were cautious, alert, but also familiar with their surroundings. Some were absolutely breathtaking; all were whitetail. They had come from the hillside above our cabin and were making what we soon learned was their twice-daily pilgrimage to the house at the foot of the hill below us: the large domicile was their deer diner, where a well-meaning citizen fed them some sort of grain mix. And these poor, hungry creatures arrived like clockwork for designated feeding times, much like any domesticated animal does. As we all know, deer are starving not only because winter takes away the grass and leaves of their diet, but also because their ability to roam and get food is impinged by human development and the disappearance of their habitat. They still reproduce no matter how little space or food they have. I don’t know if feeding them is the right-headed thing to do, but I understand the urge to assist these beleaguered fellow creatures.

One of the group, we noticed, arrived with the rest and then settled into the hillside. This one did not continue on to the feeding site about thirty yards below. She curled up like a cat on the ground, camouflaged in the brown leaves and resembling one of the frost-stricken shrub mounds that pepper the woodland floor. When the rest of the herd had eaten their handout, the caravan moved in a retrace of their steps, back to wherever it is that they spend their days and nights. But she stayed, coiled, head down. Much after the rest had gone, we saw her get up and move unsteadily and slowly, we hoped, to rejoin the group. But she hadn’t eaten, never reaching the destination but participating as well as she could in an established habit, though stopping short of the goal.

The next day, the same thing: the herd moving down the slope to the eating spot and the one deer arriving late and settling into the same position and location. Oh no, she must be sick, we thought. And if she doesn’t eat, she will die. She stayed longer in her coiled repose each day that we watched her. It was heartwrenching. What was wrong: Was she aged, was she injured, was she dying? I couldn’t stand to witness this. I am a big believer in all things natural, and I understand that nature is very practical and not at all sentimental; but I am sentimental – a cruel irony for this observer of natural wonder.

Here we were, in this exquisite setting, views from every window, and our most meaningful prospect of the descending woodland had this poor, hapless deer right smack in the center. I found myself not wanting to look out, thankful for the short days so that I couldn’t see the tragedy playing out before me; on the other hand, I was compelled to look, hoping that she had gone back with the herd. I was despising this beautiful place, all of the joy drained out like the life I was witnessing. I was sobbing every day, to the point where my partner said that I was not allowed to look out the windows anymore. Our car was parked down the slope, not far from the deer’s site, so we had to pass it every time we were going out; I was eventually forbidden to look in that direction at all as we passed, since the tears would start flowing again. And when we turned our car around to exit the property, our headlights would scour the landscape like searchlights, and I couldn’t look because I was afraid I would see her still sitting. It was so distressing; I longed to be back in the familiar daily stresses of the too-dense city.

We mentioned this terrible situation to a local friend who came over one day and was willing to look from a distance, even if we weren’t. She didn’t see the deer, dead or alive. The next day, the day of the lunar eclipse, I was looking out at the woods, feeling a little easier, when a huge bird arrived and sat in a tall tree above the site. It was a bright, sunny day, and the giant creature opened its wings, a span of many feet. As the sun shone through the massive feather spread, much like a hang-glider or kite but more beautiful than any you could imagine, glowing orange and black – it dawned on me: a vulture. Oh no, oh no. The sobbing began again, but it was different this time.

Strangely and suddenly, I started thinking that the worst was over, and whatever pain and suffering that may have been happening there in the woods had ended. I was relieved, somehow, that the deathwatch was over. I knew that there would be more vultures coming soon to do what they do so well in ridding the world of dead animals. And then, just as quickly as it had arrived, the vulture flew away and no others came. Now I was confused, but I had just been through the whole gamut of emotions: terror, sorrow, resignation, relief, acceptance – and I was starting to feel less anxious about the landscape. I began looking anew out the windows and, when I walked by the site, I scanned the ground for the deer. I became emboldened and walked closer to the wooded parcel, not entering it because it was a drop-off from the path, carefully studying the ground and all the frost-stricken shrub mounds that lay about. No deer. My partner, too, looked hard for the deer and did not find it. My spirits lifted. The woods became friendly and attractive once again.

We will never know the fate of that deer, but we are, in our insular citified way, happy that we didn’t have to know. Bambi’s mother wasn’t really killed by that hunter – we all hope that. We had said, over the course of our visit, many pagan prayers for the deer. What we want to believe is that she was healed by the lunar eclipse and the winter solstice happening simultaneously, a seasonal natural miracle – an occurrence of mythic proportions in a place in nature. We like to think that nature is full of miraculous events – all of us living things are evidence enough – but sometimes you just need a twist of fate to reinforce your sense of hope and magic.

 

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Gone. Not Forgotten

Sometime back in the ‘60s or early ‘70s (which, as everyone knows, was still the ‘60s), a bunch of people got together in a theater to perform a piece of conceptual art. What they did in that theater, up onstage, was to live in it. They just went about their daily lives, 24 hours a day, and, all the while, audience members came and went, watching the “actors” simply live their lives, or as close to that as one can do when one is being observed. Those onstage pretended not to be on view; those watching pretended not to be voyeurs. It was a perfect exemplification of the theatrical fourth wall.

But, more, what this conceptual piece did – besides acting as a precursor of the classic PBS series, “An American Family,” as well as just about every reality-TV show to come, especially “Real World” – was to elevate (if that was the direction) the act of everyday living to a functional definition of art. And, by default, turning each one of those who were living onstage into artists. Art did not imitate life, nor vice versa – they were one and the same.

To extend the argument, aren’t we all, then, practitioners of the art of living? And aren’t the “stages” upon which we “perform” places of art: in design, accoutrement and action? And, therefore, do not each of these places, to one degree or another, have a placeness and, for our purposes here, are discussable in terms of placeness as art?

And, what we have thought about for some time, and which has been brought to bear more intensely recently, is that perhaps the most palpable sense of placeness, and placeness as art, is resident in those places where those who lived there live there no longer, where the overwhelming power of placeness is shaped by the absence of what had once been there and by our memory or imaginings of the people and creatures and objects that once were.

All this, as disputatious prelude, to get us around to the point: that in the past few weeks we have experienced the death of a mother – the last of our parents – and a cat, the last of a litter that was born on our kitchen floor, beginning a mutually loving relationship between four felines and two humans that lasted nearly 19 years.

Their loss has renewed our feeling that among those places most redolent of placeness are those where ones who lived there are gone; that a room we visited – one that once had furniture we sat on and touched, and living beings we communed with and kissed, and smells and sounds and other things we took for granted – now, vacant, seemed somehow more filled with all of that, and with deeper feeling and meaning, importance and urgency: not inhabited by ghosts, but filled with echoes, not seen with a measured eye but apprehended by recollection or by some sixth or seventh sense we have yet to divine.

In our mother’s small apartment, there was a point when she was no longer there but her belongings were, and, truthfully, there was, besides the fact of her physical absence, so little emotion there – just a bunch of dead wood and bought scraps. But, now, those meager items have been removed and, suddenly, somehow, everything is there and, out of the corner of our mind’s eye, so is she – in an odd way, maybe even more insistently so even than when she was really there. (Which begs the question, “What is real?” which will not be answered here, nor any attempt made to do so.)

In our house, in the kitchen, we surrounded the table with cat beds, raised to the level of the tabletop, so that when we ate, our cats ate with us; when we watched TV there, they watched with us – one family, together. Soon, that spot became a central place in our home: no matter where the cats might spend their days, they would find their way to the beds, and us, to be fed, to be rubbed, to nap, each to his or her own favorite bed, or the one that the pecking order assigned each to. When the four became three, there was some shuffling of spots, but mainly it remained the same. When three became two, there was more of a freedom for the survivors to select any bed they wanted, within the parameters of cat power politics. When two became one, every bed was our last cat’s, and she used all of them.

But now, four have become none, and yet … there they all are again, we can see them, in their prime, where they belong, waiting for us: Spike and Luna and J.R. and Chub, in their spots. When there had been even just one cat, it had been a circle of empty beds used by her; with none, they are all occupied by their rightful residents. Strange about placeness: sometimes a complete absence is necessary to experience a complete presence. We felt it and, perhaps, noted it first when we visited the affecting and spectral Springside, in the Hudson Valley. Now, in a parent’s apartment, around our kitchen table, we feel it again. Like an empty stage that still resonates with the energy of the actors that once performed there – all of us, actors on our own stages, in a grand conceptual piece from which the art that then-ness and now-ness and placeness derives and remains.

Where we have been will be, to those who loved us, someplace we will always be, in a way they wish us to be always.

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