This paper jam article in the New Yorker hits on several topics I have been immersed in lately: the limits of technology, pleasure in work, problem identification and...flower arrangements, even symbolic ones. I am not surprised that it is a popular article this week; it's endearing to read about engineers who clearly love their job of redesigning Xerox machines that ultimately succumb to the paper jam. This 'problem' has always existed and because of the unpredictability in air flow behavior, it likely always will. No amount of engineering prowess or tech innovation applied to it has made it go away. However, there seems to be an acknowledged frivolity in the fact that we can just print copies on demand. The workers profiled in the story delighted in creating temporary solutions. More than being entertained or enlightened while reading, I felt jealous of this detail. If you read enough literature on flow-state mentality or even skim worker psychology articles, you'll understand what I mean. What some people wouldn't give to have an unending problem to solve.
To my knowledge, there is only one book that closely examines De Stijl artist Piet Mondrian’s largely unknowable collection of naturalistic flower paintings. Mondrian painted these at the beginning of the 20th century until the late 1920’s, mostly for money and mostly, as the author notes many times, under the guise of indifference.
Done in watercolor and ink, the works are heavy with mood and desire, if not a bit romantic in their overall existence. The book, aptly titled “Mondrian: Flowers” by David Shapiro does what it can with very little documentation about this side project of Mondrian’s. When considering the flowers in relation to the abstract line paintings that took him all the way to the top, it’s understandable why Mondrian refrained from discussing them in a meaningful way. They would have taken over the conversation with their unreal beauty, a concept Mondrian appeared to attack in the abstract, painting black line across black line on the canvas until only the distant idea of nature was evoked. If the discussion could be contained to the boxes of solid primary color, or better yet, the absence of it, Mondrian could be free to paint what was missing and he could do it in private.
Shapiro finds proof that Mondrian continued to paint these flowers even when he wasn’t being commissioned by advertisers or publishers. Mondrian would paper the walls of his studio with these floral images to show friends and his notebooks are full of many motifs of the same single stem of chrysanthemum, a favorite of his, or a lily or a rose. They are thickly outlined and alone, deep strokes of color moving up and down behind them. Rarely did he paint bouquets or arrangements. The bloom is isolated, itself a study in symbolism and the symmetry that appears in nature without mans intervention. It is also appears deranged. There is an unspeakable gloom in even the brightest burst of flora, as though Mondrian can’t forget that death is creeping up the stem. In one study of a sunflower the petals feather forward, the stem droops over heavy with age and the gigantic blossom center appears as a downcast eye. This private exploration of decay clearly struggles against the sterile block paintings occurring simultaneously and much more publicly.
Spirituality was on Mondrian’s mind, as his involvement in theosophy is well documented, and Shapiro finds these flowers to have been an extension of his spiritual practice. He writes that this “symbolism provided him with a spiritual refuge from an obsession with mere facts of vision that permitted him to engulf cubism without engulfing himself.”
It is likely that if Mondrian had tried to become a serious painter of nature, he would not have had much success pushing the form forward. The work is something of a lesser Van Gogh and lacking imagination. However, it's important to recognize that Mondrian probably knew this as well, yet didn’t care. Here he was painting for himself, despite what he told others, and extracting meaning from it that he could apply elsewhere, onto a style that was lacking it. He was able to transfer the task we typically place on flowers to express our emotions and give us pleasure onto panels of blunt abstraction. Like the timeless quality of flowers, Mondrian’s influence endures to this day.
In a rather tossed-off moment last week, Greta observed that I did not really care about gravestones when she mention that there were several cemeteries along Highway 71 just south of Fayetteville, AR that I might stop and look at. I didn't object at the time but the comment sat on me like moss and I couldn't figure out if she was right or not. In a sense, she is. For all of my enthusiasm for cemeteries as places of memory and dedication, I don't immediately seek out stone markers that to tell me about the space. I'm thinking now about the afternoon in which I drove over to see the Confederate cemetery she told about which lay in a woods near her house. I pulled up to the gate but didn't go beyond it, the white marble statues were plenty visible from the road. Right outside the gate was a family cemetery, smaller but just as walled off, inside of which large headstones with lettering sat. I could read them as I walked by them to inspect a few smaller, misaligned headstones that were planted among the leaves and branches. "Sally" was the only word on one, the others were too worn to read or had fallen face-down into their sunken lot. These were the slave graves Greta had told me about. I gently stepped around whatever stones lay on the ground, careful that my footsteps avoided going back in the direction from which I came.
Once, sitting in the back of a car that was driving along the pacific coast near the Santa Monica pier, I had a discussion with another funeral director friend of mine about what we had never seen. We’d seen a lot of traumatic death, but neither of us had seen a body hanging from a noose. We both agreed it was an image we were most uneasy with. The drama of it would almost surely bring with it the feeling that this had been a mistake. No matter how intentional the act was, the shock of it would make it seem wrong. I have been thinking about the person hanging from that tree in Japan and if they felt their life was cheap. To then be cast as the symbol of someone else's failed attempt at dark humor, their failed attempt at seriousness, at any sensitivity at all is an even more hopeless reality to wrestle with. However, if I think about what a powerful light that person’s body became in death by exposing the ugliest parts of the most hollow human, the parts that until that moment were unreachable, I am comforted once again by the power death has over all of us. It matters very little if the person being exposed (or confirmed) as a monstrous capitalist understands that they look one million times worse than the person in the tree.
Their ignorance should not be our focus. We need to protect our dead, not be protected from them.
Filmmaker Sai Pramod Mohan described his first experience with cremation to me. Sai grew up in India, where cremation is a much different experience than what we have in the United States:
"My first cremation experience was at the age of 14-15 years, when my grand father passed away. He was 75 years, super healthy, active and was living with my Grandmother and her mother in a very small spiritual town in South India. I remember my dad telling me that grandpa passed away in his sleep and we are leaving immediately with no return plans in place. By the time we reached, there were a few other relatives mourning next to my grandpa who was covered in a white shroud, his eyes closed, big toes tied together with a piece of cloth and left uncovered so people could touch them to pay their respects. The body stayed there for 2-3 days, while some of my family members were busy with preparations for cremation and others sat next to the it.
"On the day of cremation, grandpa was bathed, covered with turmeric, dressed in new clothes and brought to the patio of the apartment in a chair. A priest chanted hymns, and instructed my uncle-the eldest son and my dad to perform a small ritual as the other family members formed a circle around them. A wooden stretcher covered with a fresh white linen waited on the street for grandpa at the end of the ritual.
"Once on the stretcher, four men including my dad, and uncles picked it up and the procession of men walked towards the cremation grounds as the women of the house wailed staying put on the street. There were 15-20 men in total including me and my cousins who were around my age. We enthusiastically threw petals of flowers on grandpa as the elders shouted a distinct chant that loosely translates into "There's nothing permanent in this world". By the time all the elders took turns carrying grandpa we reached the banks of the river, where an undertaker with a well framed pile of logs was waiting for us. Grandpa was moved to the top of the log pile and each of us started covering him up with more logs as the priest's chants continued. My uncle, being the eldest son had a log of fire in his hand and circled around the pyre a few times before the priest instructed him to light it up. As the flames picked up, we stood by them watching the embers form and take grandpa away slowly. Being a very restless kid, I remember asking my dad how long till we go home? The priest, who overheard it chuckled and explained that we are not supposed to leave till "Kapala Moksha"- i.e till the bursting of the skull which signifies leaving of the soul from the body. I wondered how we'd know when Grandpa's soul leaves but was fascinated enough to not ask anymore questions and just stare at the rising flames. After a few minutes, a loud thud sound reverberated through the flames. I knew that grandpa's soul had left us, as we prayed one last time before walking back home."
A holiday card arrived in the mail mentioning how nice it was to see a little bit of my life through my infrequent Instagram posts. A comment made during Thanksgiving expressed confusion about what I might be interested in as far as gifts go based on looking at that same feed. I did a tarot spread for myself in which judgement was the first card I drew, crossed with the nine of wands, the full weight of my desires. I'm not trying to be too reflective this year end, because I did so much of that already this year. Outwardly, I was slight and confused. Inwardly, I was working overtime. But I did the work and these last couple weeks have felt uncommonly clear. I believe it started on the solstice, which I spent outside a tiny Texas town at a bonfire on a friends land. She moved out there when her folks died. She recently bought the town grocery store. We drove past several holiday Trail of Lights displays to get there. None were spectacular but you could still see them coming a mile off. The line of cars was longer than necessary as well. But our bonfire was bright too, even though it only attracted us and one fat cat. It was a nice display of heat in the long darkness and emitted a primal, nurturing feeling. It took several logs, two old rocking chairs and a year's worth of unopened mail from my friend to make that thing burn. My hair smelled like smoke for two days afterward, as if to remind me that nature has its own hazy attachments to people that aren't sure why they're there.
Here's to a new year of space, protection, providing, creating, trust and rest.
When I was in Germany over the summer, I saw many picturesque places that would have been perfect for scattering cremains. I also visited Holocaust memorials, so I wasn't sure how the country viewed cremation today. I was able to get some insight from a funeral worker from Germany:
"I don’t think people make a strong connection between cremation and the Holocaust. Maybe because the horror is more in having so many dead bodies at a time. The were hundreds of mass graves too. And we all know the pictures of that too. Hundreds of half naked, worn out bodies thrown into a huge roughly dug hole in the ground. Maybe these pictures are even more “real” than the ovens because there is no technical and abstract solution as cremation in between."
"So as long as it goes one by one everybody is fine. And there are strict laws and intelligent technical solution to make sure it’s one persons dead body at a time and nothing gets mixed up. Sometimes that causes problems too. We had already two times a case of a mother with child where the family wanted them to be buried/cremated together..."
"But because of WWll our traditions around death changed. Everybody lost so many people that they couldn’t cope with it the old way. So the whole funeral tradition was outsourced to professionals and people tried to have as little contact with death as possible."
"Scattering ashes is not allowed in Germany. So if you stick with the official options it’s on a cemetery (grave or columbarium), the sea (in a special sea run that dissolved within 30’), under a tree (in special forest cemeteries). No ashes on the mantelpiece in Germany.
Except the city of Bremen actually. They [are] allowed to have to urn at home for up to 3 years. In general each federal state of Germany has its on legislation on how to handle bodies. That makes it a bit difficult sometimes."
Being left without imagination so early in the day, as I was this morning when I sat 'writing' for an hour, gave me a sense of despondency I was even less prepared to deal with. I tried writing again when I got to the office but gave up and tried just stamping documents. It was hard; I had to read numbers and put them in order quickly. I have no patience or efficiency, my work is fraught and slow. I indulged in deeply hateful thoughts about my aimless last few months.
I tried to explain to a coworker who was watching me that I lack the confidence to stamp quickly; I can't just trust that I know the correct order of numbers! She said maybe I should make it my goal to be a faster stamper.
If there is no holy ghost for all mankind then there most certainly is a small one for me, evidence here by the joke made of my present situation. I wish there was a less humiliating way to learn focus and pragmatism but I just can't think of any right now.
The other day I received a response from author and LA historian Richard Carradine to my inquiry about scattering ashes as Disneyland.
"Yes, many people over the years have been caught trying to scatter the ashes of a loved one at Disneyland. It's apparently happened so many times that the park has HEPA vacuums and a protocol for such incidents. Obviously there are cameras everywhere in the park and in every attraction, so as soon as someone starts to spread a foreign powder, they can shut down the attraction or area immediately and clean it up. Even if someone covertly deposits the remains in water like on a boat ride undetected, most water-systems are drained and cleaned nightly. One Cast Member told me that its a shame because ultimately that loved one ends up in the trash. As for spirit energy connected to this, there are two ghost stories linked to this idea of spreading ashes. The Haunted Mansion is said to be haunted by a little boy (seen most often in the unload area), who according to legend had his ashes scattered on the ride by his mother. This was presumably many years ago before they started watching out for such behavior. It is said that his ashes blended with fake dust throughout the attraction and went unnoticed. There is also a little boy that has been seen riding in the boats of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride for the same reason. Although two identical ghost stories connected to two different attractions is possible, some believe this story is true of one attraction, and that over the years it has been falsely attributed to the other attraction to explain the identical nature of the two "boys." Who knows. I hope that answers your question."
Be sure to check out Richard's new book The Park After Dark for many more deep cuts from haunted Disneyland.
I read this poem today on Craigslist free stuff and it made me think of you:
neighbor has this couch by curb street and I have this stuff by curb / its now gone as of last night
an Ice chest etc
neighbor next has old treated picket fence which r gray color and about 23 years old
Wasted time has been a concern of mine for/since/probably my whole life, acutely felt on Sunday when it's late afternoon. I am not alone in this but the delusion is that I am and my agitation starts to look like compulsory actions-eating, shopping, scrolling. Usually I would be recovering from literal 'wasted time' but its been a few years since that occurred and I am grateful for it.
My idea of productivity wasn't achieved over the long holiday weekend and in a desperate attempt to make use of what was left of the fading daylight I sat outside to measure the hour in stillness. It helped that it is gorgeous today, easy to sit uncovered. I tried to go to a more 'special' spot where we could both hike and sit, but it was crowded and broke my immersion of being the sole human on the planet. In my backyard, I set my timer for an hour and watched.
My brain activity ebbed and flowed, replaying the previous nights events, jumping forward into my doubts about the future. When I was able to focus on the present, I could smell the foliage on the air, the barbecue in the neighborhood, hear the rooster next door, the flap of a birds wings, a telephone ringing twice within the hour. I could see, and I could see I wasn't looking.
I have a lot to do. That is about all I can comprehend at the moment. I also didn't make it the full hour, as Warren came out to tell me something and we walked around the yard using the landscape to depict our plans. He picked up a half circle of chopped wood to use as a base, I clipped stalks of lavender to fill an empty vase I had been thinking about filling for months. Problem solved.
Late Thursday night a friend tweeted at me asking if I remembered the band we had attempted to see at the Mohawk the last time we hung out together. Neither of us could remember anything about it other than that the audience felt hostile and we left early. The bad energy is all that sticks in our minds and its driving us crazy trying to figure out who it is. If you can help, some clues are: indie/folk music, song about astrology or something celestial, seems like it was just a female with a guitar, 2010/2011. All leads welcome!
One other thing I remember is us driving under the overpass downtown on 7th and her telling me about a guy she just starting dating who had a pet iguana. They are married now and I think she is expecting a baby. As harrowing as it was to identify a completely black spot in my fairly recent memory, it somehow also brightened my perception of that time of my life. Until Thursday night, I almost exclusively thought of it as very lonely and I am pleased to be reminded of the moments that weren't.
Before I got out of my car this morning, I listened to Joe Biden finish his thoughts on the current political chaos. He seemed angry. The reporter's final question was if he was going to run in 2020 and Biden pounded his fist on the table while growling NO. He said his mission was to honor his dead son and give hope to people in a similar situation. He didn't say it but what I heard is that he wanted to grieve.
I feel for the people trying to move on while grieving, particularly right now, as very few examples of sanity and hope appear in the news or in culture. We have a baby as a president and we acknowledge a random celebrity as the 'sexist man alive'. I'll admit I forget what a luxury it is to revel in the absurdity of the days news, to push against the edge of my understanding and compassion with curiousity and still feel safe. That seemed to be the place the reporter was coming from when she asked Biden that silly question, though she tried to blame it on public pressure to do so.
It reminded me of this piece I read last night about the ever-changing meaning of childhood. The author of was making the argument that as we fail to manage as adults due to things like lack of sustainable employment, we cling to ideas like an idyllic childhood as though it really ever existed. I also see this taking place when it comes to dealing with grief, we think we remember a time where it didn't exist or when it was more acceptable to feel our feelings-our childhood, basically. The longer we can deny our grief the longer we can stay there.
Late last week, after I had stood in front of the Austin City Council, rushing through a presentation on why Austin should accommodate green burials in their cemeteries, it finally occurred to me that my imposter syndrome appears in moments of both prosperity and trauma.
This causes me to push away from the positive momentum I’ve built or heal from the pain I am dealing with. It’s not a groundbreaking revolution but I do see it as progress in terms of my mental health. At least now I know part of what is going on.
The rest of what is going on is out of my control, which I realized when I looked around the room waiting to address the council. They do not give feedback nor do they express anything that looks like encouragement or discouragement while you talk. The woman ahead of me gave a passionate plea for kindness in schools and sang a song in French as a parting expression of this. It was moving, but in the vortex of emotion it went nowhere. I realized my voice would fall just as flat.
I did it anyway as it is important for me not to hold onto any expectations of the outcomes. I appreciated the exercise in public speaking; the chance to share my vision with city leaders who may or may not give a shit. It is on me to continue to follow up, making the presentation public and sending it to the cemetery manager. All these things I want to create or to heal from are only powered by me and I continue to be amazed at the way my brain will sabotage my ability to do both.
I watched a performance called Dueling Doulas tonight that asked questions to audience members related to death and dying. One of the question was "if you knew you were going to die in two weeks, what you do?" Everyone had their mind on who they would see and what they would say and all I could think about was how I would still be wondering how I will die.
I spent a majority of my weekend writing, attempting to create a story out of thin air that was at times so thin a hole would wear through the middle of it. Had a discussion with a friend before we went to dinner about the story her family was creating around her grandfather's situation, which is that he is old and dying but not at a speed detectable to doctors. Everyone is working hard to keep him safe and comfortable which means he is suspended in a nursing home. She said the work they should be doing is taking him home and cutting off the medicine, the physical therapy and let him eat what he wants if he want to at all. But she knows there's little chance of that. In this country we choose to believe the story that cruelty and neglect is acceptable if implemented on an institutional level and that our desires about how we die are impossible. We deconstructed that idea for several minutes before it became clear that not only was there a huge hole in that story but that we are all willing to accept the holes because the void of the truth is much bigger.
Jen pointed out my use of the word humiliating again last night and she said she couldn’t agree more. There isn’t really a better word to describe almost all situations I’ve been in recently and even I was surprised at the depth of a word I typically only apply to shallow situations.
It has been increasingly more difficult to ignore the authenticity draining from a place like Austin, especially since the election when it became painfully obvious that even these hip liberal people have not been spending much time in the company of those who don't look like them or come from their background. The culture of Austin has been struggling with this for a long time, failing to get together an infrastructure that supports the artists that is says it cares so much about.
I feel the same way about the healers that live in this city, the people who are in tune with the death work I am trying to do and who work as a resource for me when I am unsatisfied with the limits of this world. At one time, this was embarrassing to admit but right now I do not trust anyone else with my questions.
One of the true gifts of sticking it out in a city like Austin for a decade is getting invited to join a dream group that has been meeting on Monday nights for the last 20 years. The other blessing is that they are not in any way bullshit, can read your ass in five minutes from a dream you described in two. I’ve been working on dream analysis all year, mostly from a book by Robert Johnson called “Inner Work” and this group introduced me to two more methodologies that are similar in the belief that our subconscious uses archetypal imagery and the people that appear are shadows of ourselves.
I told them I was getting rained on, denied a ride by a cool acquaintance to location from my childhood, carrying all my belongings, in a hotel, scaling the edge of a pool even though I knew perfectly well how to swim, in fact I’m very good.
I was told there was no way I was going to give myself a lift to a place I didn’t even want to go anyway. All my things I could share, but for some reason I choose to keep carrying them on me. They said I hold myself back when in the company of others.
It was quick and it was humiliating.
There were other dreams shared, all of which dealt with overcoming conventional obstacles and limiting imaginations. They were quick, revealing, dead on. I asked others questions about their dreams, which was harder than I thought it would be. If felt like asking a stranger to be as vulnerable as possible so I could draw some conclusion about their life. It felt too powerful.
We sat in the car for a few minutes after the group processing the evening. I said I was in awe of the longevity of the group. That they have held out for two decades, kept dreaming, kept probing each other to go deeper. They always find that they’ve been dreaming collectively about a certain subject that gets revealed as the night goes on. It’s embarrassing to think of how unseen we are to ourselves until you sit in a group like that. As our host said at the beginning of the night, some truths are revealed so that only others can see them. It takes humility to ask for help looking.
I attended two events this weekend that were part of an ongoing art exhibit that has death as it's focus. The entire event lasts until November, with performances happening in the next few weeks as well. I will wait until the event is complete to write a full post on it but I do feel like mentioning early that the panel on death & urban renewal I attended yesterday really highlighted the problem of being white and lacking a real engagement with death & loss in any way other than to pose questions as to why we are living in denial or why we do not have satisfying rituals at death. No discussion on how privileged this perspective is, how whiteness contributed to the death of ritual by rejecting spirituality or religion or other grieving mechanisms. Also, no discussions of cemeteries as public spaces, which really surprised be given the urban planning focus of the talk.
Speaking of cemeteries, I plan to present to city council in two weeks on opening up space in the city cemeteries for green burial plots. The main reason they should do this is to stay relevant to the community in a way that hasn't been done before, by being forward-thinking in death care. The city has good alternative death care but lacks in green burial space. Making this available within the city limits would be very in line with the other environmentally-minded initiatives the city has adopted.
If it's true when they say that the veil between the living and the dead is thin this time of year, my circle seems to be preparing for this assimilation of the spirit world. I have to say I'm rather pleased to have seekers as friends. I've also been thinking about it a lot myself having just finished "Living With A Wild God: A Non-Believers Search for the Truth about Everything" by Barbara Ehrenreich, which I'll write more on later. The spiritual practices I heard about recently:
Upaya Kaushaulaya in Buddhism, which essentially translates to 'skill in means'. Buddhism-guide.com defines it as "the ability to bring out the spiritual potentialities of different people by statements or actions which are adjusted to their needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension."
A Qigong practice of standing barefoot on the earth each morning and imagining yourself grounding into it as though you were roots of a tree. You should try to experience the way the soil would feel around you, the creatures of the earth that would crawl on you. This is to help you feel connected.
I met a woman who is creating a Living Funeral ceremony, wherein people are walked through their own end of life service as a means of therapy and healing. This is popular in Asian countries to counteract the suicide epidemic and they've had great results. She is hoping it will aid in relief from depression.