Thursday, September 27, 2012

"of simple things with profound meaning"

My father was buried within the familiarity of his first idioms. This is saying something for a man who took pictures of boys on elephants in Sri Lanka when it was still called Ceylon.  But there we all were near the banks of the resolutely unpoetically-named Clubfoot Creek, singing "Shall We Gather at the River?" at my father's graveside.  There we all were speaking of "Mr. Emmett." There we all felt the breeze being pulled along by water moving out to sea. There we all sat, drinking sweetened iced tea and eating Carolina barbecue.  There we moved through old houses: the one his brother built, the one where my dad grew up.  There we marveled at this man who had left here at the age of seventeen and always came back - steadily, dearly, now for good.

I don't know if it was coincidence or the South, but I began to notice that it was in quiet asides, not in the midst of big group conversations, that female relatives would put a gentle hand on my arm and ask "So you were with him, honey?". These beautiful, kind, strong cousins, and their husbands, that made everything possible.  I was with him.  And I thought that the images of his last six hours would always stay, indelible, forever pristine and painful - that I would never forget the labor of his breathing, the sound of his last breaths, my horror and wonder, the lightness of his hand, the different realities before and after 4:14 a.m. when he "crossed over" (a phrase that makes more sense than "died" for what I saw).  But my heart already doesn't pound the same way to think of it - there is more marveling, less anguish.  The tight space of his death expands to include a flood of images of trees and rivers and lovely loving faces.  My sadness is diffused in others' memories of him, their stories, their eagerness to tell them.  Death trumped the brain injury, the wheelchair, the bed - it wrenched him free of what truly had become a mortal coil.  Down in North Carolina, Dad was vibrant once again: we pulled out old letters and pictures, realized that there are entire chapters yet to be discovered.  Steve will start working through the multiple boxes of letters; I will look to the 8,000 slides.

I am not actually sure what happens next.  I will combat these feelings of emptiness, the creeping doubt that after all the rituals are at an end, there might be nothing. Even as I know that rituals are full of the emotions we can't otherwise contain. Because they, these rituals, they were something.  My father had never been one to talk about WWII, watch the History Channel, reminisce and in any way glorify his nine years in the Navy.  But after the brain injury, he talked about it more often, and I wonder if the brain injury didn't free him up to ask for a military presence at the funeral. It doesn't matter. What mattered was the way those two young men held the flag as "Taps" (yes) played; the way they folded it in full length and time; the way one knelt before my mother, took off his hat, gave her the flag and spoke "on behalf of a grateful nation."  This greater institution (I wouldn't have minded if God Himself had come down) acknowledging that my dad was a wonderful man - that was nice.  And then, the small voice of my Oliver, beginning with "Actually..." as he sought to correct Pastor Ben in a reminiscence about my dad - precisely what Dad would have done had an anecdote presented wayward information.  Was it laughter or the transmigration of souls that made us feel so glad?

I can hear my dad's laugh much more clearly now.  I can more easily tell the kids the stories about the Creek, the War, Caracas, Mumbai, more travel always travel, Citibank, the "Jupiter Rex" certificate from Pan Am commemorating his crossing the equator (!), tenderness when we were sick, endless algebra sessions, trips, discussions of Ben Hur, more books always books, and (looping around) tales of his grandmother, catching soft shell crab as a kid, resting on the banks on the river.  I can quote a letter that Steve found from February 21, 1971 (preserved in carbon copy!) that dad wrote to his mother and whose tender beginning makes me love him all the more for how it describes a moment so many of us share, or will:

"Watching the clock, I come to my desk to tell you of simple things with profound meaning, of a father's love for his family, of his home which he seeks to shield from the harsh aspects of life outside, not only for wife and daughter but for himself as well."

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Possibility of Other Worlds

The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
I've been thinking through a few of the ideas of John Buridan, the 14th century philosopher of the natural world and the cosmos via Aristotle in preparation for a talk next week-end with a colleague in Biochemistry about perceptual models for things we can't perceive.  Taking up the call of the BABEL conference of "performing [our] respective methods in proximity to one another," we've been speaking together over the past few weeks. At first with no task at hand, instead working in and out of the process and the moments of fervor of our fields.  Eventually finding a dizzying common ground in the attempts of our respective fields to build perceptual models for what is beyond perception.  The visual empiricism boat sailed in science long ago and most of the things that Dan studies exist far below the "crust of the visible world" (to quote one of my favorite lines from Stephen Millhauser's spectacular short story about a miniaturist)  The world of biochemistry is filled with phrases like "molecular time" that I keep turning over in my head; it has analogies of scale that remind me of Brian Doyle about the hearts of hummingbirds and the hearts of blue whales (if you've never read this piece, oh please do); it dances with staggering numbers that rally to create three-dimensional models we might actually think through. It traffics in metaphor (itself characterized as an "inter-subjective bridge between two world views" in Jonathan Hsy's wonderful post ). Medieval art valiantly, exhaustively, fleshes out one perceptual model after another for what triumphantly escapes human perception: God, death, power, Arthur, love... and so on.  Every medieval image exists within a perceptual model: ritual, touch, taste, gift...another endless list.  Enter John Buridan and his treatise On the Possibility of Other Worlds where he argues about their existence.  The text is at my office, and my grasp of Aristotelian cosmological vocabulary is fleeting, but there is something there about a generative God because all things of good form reproduce themselves.  And so why not another God with another set of creations?  Why not an entire existence outside our own?  He spends some time being fascinated by the parallel universe, its earnestness and lack of consciousness of our existence.  I think that's important, the articulation of an other world that does not think on our own.  I have seldom in my life lived out so many disparate worlds, worlds that cannot possibly perceive each other: my birthday, my father, my full professor file, Don Giovanni (Mozart - with Oliver and Mac), teaching.  My southern relatives are ready for my dad's demise, as it is being referred to.  They have so many perceptual models for death - first of all, it's never called death, but instead, going home, or down the river, or taking the walk.  Analogy becomes anamorphosis; anamorphosis is given new image by analogy.  Even trying really hard to think about it, to understand that my dad will leave this world, my perception fails - I can accept it, see its contours and their shape: the gentleness and the quiet and the merciful absence of suffering. Nonetheless (a really apt word here), I can't conceive of it. Not really.  But I can think about the possibility of other worlds, the wonders of time and scale, and the relentless efforts of the human heart to make perceptual models for what it can't perceive.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Troubadour casket from Vannes, in Brittany
We have an "S" (for speaking) requirement where I teach, and long ago I decided to make "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" an "S" class.  I've never had the courage to call the class what it really is, "Desire and Subjectivity in Medieval and Literature," mostly because "Love and War" work better in advertising the course, and then I don't have the resist the temptation of adding "and Lacan" to the title.  It's really only this year that I feel that I am truly embracing the "S" aspect of the course, beyond the usual discussion of the class and a final project.  This year, thanks to the low-tech tech of PhotoBooth, I can ask students to record themselves reciting 20-30 lines of medieval poetry in translation.  Four or five students sign up for the same day, are sworn to not discuss their recitations with each other, record their recitations, and then we play them all in class at the star of the next session.  The first two to go were passages from the Conquest of Orange and were fantastic: one student struck a tone of incredible urgency and time felt compressed and we felt like helpless bystanders to doom; the other played with accents and poses and highlighted the different speakers, giving it a slower cadence and making us laugh at Guillaume's plight in the tower with Orable.  All this is inspired by Evelyn Birge Vitz's performance project at NYU, which offers single interpretations of scenes of medieval literatures in all languages (and hours of fascination).  It results in students very directly understanding that recitation is interpretation, it sets up the stage really nicely for a discussion of discourse, and it lets those texts breathe.  Some students have filmed themselves, others images that resonate with the text, and one (for Guillaume IX's poem about nothing) had a piece of crumpled up paper with scribbles on it as its star.  I ought to see if I can post some of these up here, get students' permission. 

One starts to wonder about scripted language, unscripted thought.  I went to a screening of My So-Called Enemy tonight - it's a documentary by Lisa Gossels that traces the lives of 6 Israelis and Palestinians (2 Jewish, 2 Muslim, 2 Christian) who are in a group of 22 young women and spend 10 days together at a peace camp in (of all places) New Jersey.  The point of the camp is not to agree, but to hear each other out.  As my colleague said, "There's no Kum-ba-yah, here."  It's raw and intense and the friendships fight for air amidst family and media.  And of course here, it's the editing that makes the piece make sense.  It's the editing that gives it its narrative arc, its interpretation. I had never thought of editing as a recitation until I heard Lisa recite a quote from one of the young women in the film verbatim.  It's then that I realized that Lisa had the entire film memorizes: every exchange, more than made it into the film, every line.  Documentaries, it turns out, are a kind of recitation then.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Into the Woods

Girl Scout Camp
There has been no way (good, bad, helpful, articulate, cathartic or otherwise) to write about the loss of a family friend and the process of putting my father into hospice.  I still don't have a way, but to not write leaves things too lost, too unreal.  The surreal, we have down.  Reading an e-mail about the death of our beautiful friend in Brittany; signing paper after paper (did you know there were so many?) to initiate the merciful project of hospice care.  These two deaths intertwine: one so sudden and tragic and absolute; the other gentle and comforted and intentional.  As the medications have worn off, my dad has been more alert - he really connects when he looks at you now.  I searched briefly for his knowledge and wisdom about what is happening, but gave that up to instead stay for as long as I can in his knowing of me.  He looks at me with such understanding, such kindness. I will miss being known by my father.  I tell Oliver, who is sad, that he will keep on getting to know his grandfather through the 8,000 slides of world travels, the notebooks kept during WWII, the record albums from Brazil, France, everywhere it seems.  And I think I believe that, even as I see the call to memory as kind of beside the ultimate point, which is that my dad will be gone.  Oh my poor mind, back and forth between realism and mercy.  What we tell ourselves, what we tell others, about death.  Hospice is the new ars moriendi, the new art of dying well, and it changes the conversation from lush metaphors of what happens after to quiet discussions of what is happening now.  Now is a contested concept here - within a month? most likely; tomorrow? could be. "But you never know." And so, into the woods - the combination of knowing and not knowing; the tiny allegory of Eleanor and her best friend Sophie sharing a walking stick upon starting a hike at Girl Scout camp; the presence of wonder in the mundane; the places your thoughts wander; the things that surround you that have nothing to do with you; the connections and sense you try to make; the giving up and giving over you do to sunshine or pockets of cool air.  Here we go.