Tuesday, February 23, 2010

One week after my dad died at age 89, I started an oil painting. I've been an artist my whole life and have reasonable skill. The last few years have been focused on making a living, and painting took a back seat. This last week of grief and hard truths has brought some new perspectives. Who will remember me when I'm gone? What will I leave behind? What have I done to deserve being remembered? What expresses my deepest self?

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the Little House on the Prairie series after her father, mother, and sister Mary had all died. Wilder was in her 50's when she began the stories. One of her biographies noted that loss turned her inward, remembering. Wilder's recollection of life in the late 1800's is valuable for descriptions of a way of life which has passed. But it is beloved because it recounts love: Ma and Pa's love for each other, their love for their children, the family for each other.

Any need to put feelings out in the world, in words or music or pictures, is from the same place. I have lived experiences which my children might benefit from. I can chronicle a time and a place so others will know, and tell a story so others will remember. Because if we remember, as Tim O'Brien notes in The Things They Carried, story keeps us alive.

The potential painting is of Mom, in her 80's, under an apple tree from their farm. Its working title is Things My Mother Gave Me. I'll post it when its done.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Things of This World

Kenny and Sue have lived on a small farm behind my parents' farm for around 40 years. Kenny was born there, and lived there for 20 some years before he married Sue. They are neighbors in the sense of someone you have known all of your life, and known well enough to love and hate with equal caring. They are neighbors who have walked across the fields to visit, and gone to the same small schools, and been at the weddings and funerals and BBQs. They went to Dad's funeral a few days ago. they didn't say much. No "If you need help, . . . " because we knew that.
The day after the funeral, my son and I had tickets for an evening flight back to our home. On the way to say goodbye to Mom, we stopped at Kenny and Sue's. They and 3 other families were butchering hogs, a yearly event to stock up on their own meat. Four hogs had been slaughtered the day before, and hung up in the barn to bleed out. Now, couples and friends were busy in old, blood-stained clothes, in 30 degree weather, cutting up carcasses for freezing and making sausages. Something my son has seen a few times on visits to the farm, but we figure you should never forget where food comes from.

We checked out the progress of the butchering, and Sue said that she was boiling a tongue and it should be almost done. I said how much I had always loved tongue, especially pickled tongue; all the parts of an animal are used when you live on a farm, but the organs and muscles aside from regular cuts of meat are special. They have unique texture and flavor, and are rightly considered delicacies. As farm kids, me and my siblings never thought twice about what was put in front of us. Our city-raised kids were not rusticly trained in the Art of Eating What is Set Before You, and don't share our enthusiasm for some things. However, they try. And the cousins who still live in Illinois encourage them in their education, especially if it means offering head cheese, pork hocks, you get the picture.
So when I kind of wistfully mentioned my tastes, Sue without another word put down her (very sharp) knife, went out of the butchering shed and came back in a little bit with some generous slices of tongue for us to sample. It was hot and incredibly tender. It was a very real part of the animal, with the taste buds and the root of the tongue quite obviously naming what it was. No denying, that was somethings tongue. And it was good.

Later, we were ready to leave, and Kenny asked if Mom would like some tongue. I said I don't know, but she might like a little, and if she didn't feel like eating it, there were more grandkids over there who might like to say they ate some pork tongue, once. So Kenny disappeared and returned with a plastic butter tub, which held an entire boiled tongue. I noted that out of only 4 pigs, one tongue was a lot to give. Kenny just said, in his characteristically sleepy way, that he hoped Mom enjoyed it.

We took it with us over to Mom's. She was holding up like a true Marine's wife, which she has always been. We put out the tongue and sliced it up, and teased the faint of heart who wouldn't eat it, and told stories about all the things we'd eaten as kids. Everything at a funeral is a reason to remember other things.

Food is one of the most common expressions of comfort in time of sorrow. This is told in the Christian act of communion, the eating of the body and blood of Christ. It is told in the Hindu deity of the goddess Kali, who is both giver and devourer of life. We eat to live, whether its a pig or a tomato. Death for one thing is life for another, and they become the same thing.

Lots of people brought food to Mom's. I talked to her the day Dad died, and said Mom how are you, and my Mom said "It's been a pretty rough day, Patricia." Understatement is a family trait. But she was sitting at her table with my brother and his wife and they were eating sloppy joes which the next door neighbor had brought over. The next night when I called, she was having fried chicken with her two sisters and Kenny and Sue, who had brought the chicken.

The slaughtered pig's tongue was a small precious gift, of simple generosity and understanding of neighbors. It was a gift which personifies the fear we have of eating flesh, which is not all that different from our flesh. It was a gift of the reality of life and death.

Thanks to Kenny and Sue, for the casual friendship which has been understood for my whole life and which continues without comment or fanfare into the future. And thanks for the tongue.

The Hardest Things are Simple

Two days after my father's funeral, I am back home from a long trip home--home being a place in the heart, and therefore subject to adjustment. I woke up this morning, and began to put things in order: a hot shower; a good vacuuming and straightening; a trip to find a new teapot; a brushing of two cats who are responding to longer daylight hours. Then I am ready for Grief. We'll have a cup of tea. We'll talk it over.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Changing into Old Age

Joseph Campbell's books on myth in culture include The Hero of a Thousand Faces. The Power of Myth is Campbell's explanation of myth as a guide for living, particularly for growing old. One thing that myth encourages to embrace, he says, is change.

In his work Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell describes life as a journey from "the womb to the tomb." On a complete journey, we are born (womb), grow to maturity (phallus/ yonus), and complete the cycle to old age and death (tomb). Same as Carl Jung: a complete person is one who accepts all of the stages, and lets go as each is completed. An unfulfilled life, an unhappy life, is one that avoids changing and going to the next stage. Anyone who tries to stay protected and refuse responsibility, for example, remains in the womb stage of life. They refuse to make the whole journey.

His drift: if we live our lives in the security of the womb, and refuse the responsibilities of fertility or adulthood, or the decline of old age, we aer not fully accepting our life. In refusing to let go of the phallis/ yonus/ sexual prime, we deny old age and death. The message from myth or Jung is: don't be afraid to let go, to change, to explore all the parts of life.
Old age brings a change which is hard to accept: loss. Loss of vitality, mobility, responsiblity, among other things. Clearly downhill. A way to deal with this loss, says Campbell, is to make a sort of pre-emptive strike: change yourself. Change your name. Change where you live. Change your habits. Why make changes?
Because outer change creates inner change. What do Russian child psychologist Lev Vygotsky, Joseph Brownowski [The Ascent of Man], and 2001: Space Odyssey have in common?The idea that concept formation follows physical action. We change how we think by changing our environment. For example, the scene in 2001 where the ape picks up a stick, whacks the giant monolith with it, and realizes hes just used the stick for a guided purpose. Whacking with a stick eventually led to a point where body and mind learned a use for it. Or as Brownowski illustrated it, digging into the earth to make caves to live in eventually gave way to the realization that shaping earth into bricks was an even better idea. Using bricks/ physical changes then change the way we look at the world, after we make those changes. And as Vygotsky observed, children learn by playing: concept is formed by purposeful action. Physical education and play are vital to thinking and changes, at any stage of life.
At any age, purposeful changes leads to new ideas, to forward motion, and to the next stage of life.

The drawing on this post is 10 years old. The model was an interesting person, a veteran of Vietnam, and a great reader. He practiced meditation, and could pose without moving, literally, for hours. He was interesting. Thanks Ron. Youre in our memory, and on our walls.