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!

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