Sunday, March 13, 2011

Thinking through the Aftermath . . .

Daughter # 3, the one whose superpowers, she freely concedes, include a propensity to melodrama, called me Friday night, and despite her pretense at initial small talk, I instantly sensed the tears in her voice. Against a background of final-semester stress (thinking ahead to writing board exams), her response to the catastrophic images of the Japanese earthquake's damage was not surprising. Earthquakes captured her fearful imagination when she was quite small, and periodically she would demand her dad's assurances, at bedtime, that she could expect to sleep safely through the night. Indeed, she often cites the sense of security his reassurance would bring as still having a foundational weight in her worldview.

But it was me that she called Friday night, a night when I'd just got in from dinner with a colleague talking about the time spent on the picket line that afternoon. A night at the end of a week dealing with taxes, boat motor travails, and, especially, the pain and grief of seeing a friend much diminished in physical abilities. So a night when  I found it a bit tough to rally emotional energy to deal kindly with any propensity to melodrama. Instead, I did a mother's best to allow the emotions to spill, to acknowledge them, sympathize.

And then to the heart of the matter. What, as a mother of adult children who still, occasionally, want moral direction, want help untangling existential complexities, what can I offer, when I am still trying to see two paces ahead myself? On this occasion, again, I tried to remind my daughter that truly, we know that death and tragedy are an important part of life, although our contemporary lifestyle may so often try to push that knowledge aside. Ash Wednesday, which passed just last week, which I've come so far from observing as in my youth, that I had to be reminded of it by La Belette Rouge's post last week, Ash Wednesday reminds Christians of this death-in-life, as other practices in other religions remind their followers. Besides translating our horror at Japan's damages into as large a donation as we can manage, and quickly, our response to the existential questions triggered by this event should bring us back to what we know already.

That is, knowing that death is only ever one unexpected step away, we should live so that we can meet death knowing we've done our best with what we were given. In the absence of a religious code, as so many of us are these days, it might behoove us, occasionally, to see what personal code of values and standards we want to honour. While it's been decades since I've made my confession, as a Catholic, I still have considerable respect for the practice as a regular accounting. Events such as Japan's, or New Zealand's before that, horrify us, in part, I think, because even (especially?) in the absence of any belief in an afterlife, the notion of our life being quickly snuffed out  demands that we assert its value as some kind of meaningful totality. So many deaths in such a short timeframe prompts fears that our lives are insignificant, indistinct from millions of others.

The phone call took 32 minutes and 54 seconds, says the feature I'm getting used to on my new phone, an example of the kind of numeracy that assigns meaning and strips it simultaneously. It was followed up by two shorter calls, the last one made in the dark, my head already on my pillow, as I checked to see she was alright, to kiss her good-night, to hear her tell me she loved me. Before that, I'd given her an assignment: to try to distill what was most important to her, to define what she expected of herself. How would she honour those values, serve others as she meant to, live with integrity? The quakes in Japan were hugely destructive and will take years to recover from. But being shaken to the core by them, at this safe distance, can provide a meaningful opportunity to examine our lives in a renewed appreciation of death.

Here's the thing: it was a flawed, initially laboured conversation. By virtue of being a mother, I don't necessarily know what they want me to know. Many cultures, however, would consider me en route to being an elder, as well as a mother, and sometimes you just have to step up and think out loud. And in the face of disaster, elders and mothers do the best we can. So there's my thinking on  Japan. Horror won't help anyone much, but donations and expressions of sympathy might. That's the first step. Next, make whatever practical arrangements make you feel safer for the disasters you now imagine -- stock up on bottled water, charge the batteries, buy the candles, whatever it takes.

 But then face our individual horror by acknowledging death, yet again, and examining our life in the face of it. Could be a good project for Lent (another observance I've abandoned, but which incorporates some ancient wisdom that might be retrieved. . . )

So tell me: have you been fielding existential questions yourself this past week? or asking them? How does being "d'un certain age" affect the way you deal with these? How does your lengthening memory, your ever-growing experience of past tragedies, inflect your responses?

As for me, having done "heavy" for the day, I'm now off for my run, then meeting Nola and her folks for crêpes, then my sisters for drinks and snacks. . . . not quite Lent-like, but a girl needs balance!

18 comments:

  1. This is such a thoughtful post, and in many ways mirrors some of the thoughts I've been wrestling with lately.

    One of the things that drew me to the Jewish faith is the concept of "tikkun Olam," literally "heal the world." The Jewish faith has no formalized concept of an afterlife; some believe some don't, but the idea is that you try to make the world a better place while you're here. Not because of any reward in the next life, but because it's the right thing to do. Even though I've progressed through agnosticism to atheism in the last few years, I still fall back on this part of the belief system, and find that it comforts. I try to remember what legacy I will leave by my actions.

    We've also been setting up our estate plan, mostly with an eye to providing for petit monsieur after we're gone. We none of us know how long we have, and while I can deal with thoughts of my own mortality, it's the worry about what becomes of afterward that churns. As we have no other children, nor do any of our siblings, he may be reliant on strangers eventually, and we're doing whatever we can now in hopes that he will be financially and legally protected.

    Hope you have a lovely day!

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  2. I too have a heavy heart and am shocked to the core with all the destruction and death in the wake of the quake and tsunami...Japan needs our help, the Red Cross seems like the best agency to support at the moment.

    I too share your daughter's fear, but I have had to tell myself that it is beyond my control and that I must live in the moment....
    besides as a mother I must reassure my children too.

    Your conversation with your daughter, even if all you did was listen, shows that you honour her feelings and fears and offer your support. That is enough.

    It sounds to me like you are feeling weary too so actioning a run, a visit with Nola and activities that will nourish your soul are very much in order!

    Be well mater,

    Hugs
    XO

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  3. Beautifully written Mater. None of us who are d'un certain age have come this far without experiencing grief and tragedy whether personal or from world events. Still, these events shock us out of a complacency regarding our tiny existence in this world. Perhaps, that is the greater intention? I have young adult sons, and feel honored when I'm called upon to sooth and console. Best to you this lovely Sunday.

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  4. In some cultures you would be an elder, let alone on your way, so it is (according to much of the world) your task now to ponder those questions and even to ask them of younger members of the community who may not be as sensitive and outward-focused as your daughter. I have drafted several posts on loss and death and left them in the folder thinking few would want to read them. But thanks to you I will likely post on this step of life.

    Few of us respond naturally to such sudden tragedy, it knocks us off our feet. Our comfortable, regulated world is suddenly alien. As you say, it is a time to pause, to mourn and reflect on the wonder and fragility of life and its inevitable end.

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  5. I'm not sure whether my daughter has been influenced by the many recent natural disasters, but she has been talking a lot about death recently. Interestingly, she is more curious than fearful, and I'm trying to respond in kind. She has been wanting to talk to me about how I felt when my father died, what happens to people's 'stuff' when they die, etc. I think we create less full lives by ignoring the presence of death - and then when we are faced with tragedies of such a scale that we can't ignore them, we're not really equipped to deal with them on an emotional level.

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  6. Mater, I had a similar reaction to yours. Inasmuch as no matter how sad this is, still, one just goes on. And dying is a part of life on earth, as are floods, as are earthquakes.

    The talks you had with your daughter are how we can mean anything, anything, in this short time. You're a good mom, some of which just involves tenacity. Pater was right.

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  7. Pseu: Thanks for this thoughtful response. And I so love that exhortation: heal the world! so all-encompassing, isn't it!
    I can imagine that having a son with your guy's needs would complicate one's preparations for one's inevitable death -- we do the best we can, I suppose, and then have to let go. Tough to do, I'm sure.
    Hostess: It's so difficult, isn't it! I also told my daughter that there are always needs to be met, even if they're not televised in the context of the latest disaster. We're very lucky to know some wonderful people doing important work in various parts of the Third World and donating to their projects is an ongoing privilege.
    Marguerite: I can't see intention in such tragic events, but I do see possibilities for enhanced awareness, for mindful living.
    And yes, I do feel honoured when my children turn to me for answers -- inadequate, but honoured.

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  8. duchesse: I hope you know I wasn't being coy or demurring about my age, but rather am reluctant to claim that I've achieved the wisdom or the particular spirituality that I associate with, for example, First Nations elders. But I've had FN elders encourage me, at several points if not in so many words, to own my own elder status. It's in that spirit that I offer my own attempts to tease some meaning out of tragic events -- and I'd be most interested to see your own thoughts about loss and death. I'm sure they're wise and eloquent, and I hope they're also flawed and human and groping, if that doesn't sound too odd. We're all of us just stumbling toward the light, no?
    Tiffany: I think that is so very true: by not acknowledging death, we do lead less full lives. The two central deaths I have faced (my brother's very sudden death, at 21, and my father's, after a very long bout with cancer) have enriched me immeasurably. Friends who do Hospice work say the same thing about the many deaths they help people face.
    btw, your daughter sounds like a very special "old soul" from the bits I'd heard about her.
    LPC: In fact, my first response, which I managed to check, was a certain brusqueness, an impatience I feel towards a certain kind of sensationalized response, over and again, to these televised images, as if it's a surprise that the world contains death and suffering. Of course, that response probably came as much from my own horror at what I was seeing, but I also found that brusque voice within me somewhat useful.
    But I'm so glad I didn't let my daughter hear it! I'd prefer to maintain at least the possibility of being a good mom, as you and Pater are kind enough to think I am. And so are you!

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  9. This situation HAS brought existential questions to the fore and my closet faith has made a public appearance. I can entirely understand the dilemma in speaking to your daughter--she wants reassurance and yet, ultimately, it may be important for her to see that even her parents don't have all the answers.

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  10. Brace yourself; your post defiantly resonates with because like you I too am expected to have all the answers, to be the panacea for all that is going wrong in their world... Mostly it's a long, deep hug that reassures, but as Daisy has discovered, distance is cruel and the lack of continuous contact makes it harder to connect in an instant, especially via the phone.
    The coverage from Japan definitely throws into the spotlight the precariousness of our lives, we are tiny in the face of such monumental movement and as such I do try very hard to make the most of what time I have.
    I confess it never occurred to me when Daisy went to Japan to worry; they seem so organised out there.
    The funny thing is we too were discussing the greater power out there with Leyla, who is watching the new Brian Cox series about the universe, you know how I feel about God, but it's funny to see her wrestle with science v religion. She knows what I think and what Emin thinks and I trust she will make her mind up as she gets older.
    I must confess that having been moved by your post I was reduced to tears of laughter by 'Hostess's..' "shocked to the core" Yes, so were they! Seriously, do you think she realised how funny that was?!!

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  11. Our school is going to try and fundraise - just spent the morning emailing my fellow mums on the parents' board and trying to put something together. We have only 6 Japanese families left (a Japanese school opened up in Budapest a few years ago) but want to show our support. We know a family in Kyoto - the daughter lived with us in Canada for her grade 11 year. I'm sure they are all fine as it's so far away from the disaster area, but she hasn't replied to my emails. She has 4 small kids, all under 6! It must be so worrying now, because of the problems with the nuclear power stations. It's almost too much to take in. P.

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  12. On a MUCH lighter note, I wanted to give you this link -

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1364903/Lulu-leads-new-breed-glow-getting-grandmothers.html

    P. :0)

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  13. Terri: I suspect that's as big a lesson as any: that the ones we hope will dispense wisdom do not, in fact, have the answers. A wisdom of its own, that is, if a sad wisdom. And yes, many closet faiths get "out"ed in times like these.
    alison: you bring up something that I think was a big part of my daughter's discomfort -- the way we're all dispersed, so that she could imagine, above all, not being able to contact us for reassurance.
    and yes, funny, probably (surely) unintentional
    Patricia: In the face of such large-scale disaster, focussing on someone we know both helps us deal AND makes the reality more painfully tangible. Your efforts will be much appreciated, I'm sure.

    and thanks for the Lulu-granny article. Isn't she gorgeous?

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  14. You are so thoughtful Mater. I had your same brusque response. As a not particularly religious person who nevertheless lives in close relationship with my Episcopal church community, I am regularly reminded of the cycle of life and death. Death and destruction and suffering do not surprise me. I do what I can to help, but don't suffer in solidarity.

    As mother, I've not yet had to ponder how to advice on existential questions. My kids are mostly focused on careers at this point.

    It's always a good idea to keep one's estate plans in order.

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  15. This is a great post.

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  16. hmmm.
    I called hoping to talk to dad that night, but you answered instead. I could tell by the sound of your voice that you were very tired. I had kept myself posted on your week, and was well aware of the BS you were sifting through before you could come to Vancouver. I tried asking for dad so I wouldn't have to dump my emotions on you but... you caught on right away.
    Some people would pay thousands of dollars for the kind of listening and advice that you gave me.
    We did talk for almost 30 min, I timed it too. Once every 3 years or so you and I have a good teary (me)"deep" talk that leaves me feeling that that darn elephant has finally sauntered off from its resting place on my sternum. I love that feeling..but I am guessing sometimes that elephant makes its way to your house, and your chest too. Sorry 'bout that!!!
    I am very very luck to have a guy like R to try to move that tonnage of pachyderm - but mom! you are truly the one with the superpower of speech. You always talk me back to calm and clarity. Thank you thank you thank you.
    Zach is right, it is a good post and you are a good, great,amazing, the best best best mom.

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  17. Susan: Well expressed. I don't see how suffering in solidarity helps anyone at all. Better to do the best we can at helping whenever we can and otherwise live fully and consciously.
    Zach: Thanks, son. . .
    Meg: Some day you'll pass it on, sweetie, right? You have many great superpowers of your own and I think you always use that melodrama to powerful effect. We'll miss you guys . . . do pop in to leave comments on the blog, especially since you're not on FB anymore!

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  18. What a good mother you are - an inspiration!

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