Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Let Go The Undying

In ancient Egypt, only the Pharaoh had a shot at becoming a god, at being reborn into an undying state of eternal joy and power.  His assorted wives and concubines and many many slaves and indeed his cats could accompany him, but they would be born again into a state of eternal subordination.  Just like in life.  His life would be remembered on the walls of his many memorials and the tomb, and even speculation of his future in the afterlife would be put up for all to see.

Now more than ever before, lives are chronicled in such a way that anyone might know of the people who lived them.  In the aftermath of 9/11, many people held on to their old cell phones long after the contract had lapsed, to preserve the recorded voices of loved ones, sending voice messages from within the doomed towers.  Facebook has a small but significant population of ghosts, pages belonging to people who have died, and occasionally a message from loved ones will show up on the page, keeping it current.

Youtube is especially poignant in that it preserves the moving image of people.  That's what video is, and even though we are all very accustomed to pictures of people who are no longer with us, it brings a whole different dimension to the experience when the pictures talk and move about.  You can find recordings of people going about their daily lives, mundane things.  People will post almost anything on YouTube.  But a video of someone going about his daily life is a more wrenching memorial than some cold stone in a field somewhere.

I don't like cemeteries, not least for the grim reminder they provide.  I don't like thinking about the fact that I have to die someday, who would?  And I'm not thrilled about tying up all that prime cropland with dead bodies, either.  That's a waste, all those bodies are doing is lying there, while the living still need to eat.  Cremation is, I think, the much better solution.  But enough about that.  And I've never made sense of the practice of going to a cemetery to "visit" someone's grave.  Why do that?  All that's there is immaculate lawn as far as the eye can see, and cold, square stones.  Bleah.

When I want to remember someone, I get out the photo albums and look them up.  Lots of shots are posed and are good to remind me of how someone looked, but better are the shots from when we were doing things.  Playing Frisbee™ or jumping into a river or standing at the kitchen sink, these are the moments of life that are easier to bring back to memory with a photo, much easier than a posed sitting.  Even posing on the back porch doesn't come to mind as quickly as sitting around the dining table, everyone looking for the puzzle piece with the bit of white picket fence.  Posing is when you set life aside for a moment, everybody laughing out loud while Gramma insists that she's just going to watch - while doggedly gathering up the picket fence bits so she can work that part of the puzzle - is a slice of life that is a moment set aside for preservation.  That is a better memorial than any stone, no matter how deeply you might engrave a name or date.

A name and date can tell you how long the life lasted, but it can't tell you how the life was lived.

I was startled to hear of Cory Monteith's death.  I am an unabashed fan of Glee, I've said so in these pages before.  I was never especially fond of Monteith's character "Finn Hudson," in fact I'm not especially fond of any of the characters at all, with the possible exception of the lovably daft Brittany Pierce.  But the dynamic between all the characters makes it an eminently watchable show, and in the show as in life, when someone dies I'm left wondering, now what do I do?

When my grandfathers died, I wondered, now what do I do?  It was an odd question to ask of myself, since I would go months or even years at a time without even talking to either of them, and now they were gone.  In neither case was it a surprise, but still it rattled me.  Not bad, but a rattle.

So here I am, wasting time worrying about a pretend world with pretend people, asking myself, now what do I do?  Obviously I can do nothing whatsoever since my involvement with the show begins and ends with the word "customer" and I can choose to buy the next season or not.  But I'm already in a weird place.

I watch everything on DVD.  There isn't a cable connection to my house - though my experience with AT&T as an internet provider may change that - nor even a TV antenna.  If it isn't on a DVD, I don't watch it.  As a direct result of that, all of my TV viewing experience is seriously time-shifted.  I have to wait for a season to come out on DVD before I can see it.  I won't watch it online, though Sweetie will with certain PBS and BBC shows.  So I've finished Season Three of Glee, but have yet to receive Season Four.  It hasn't been released yet.

When Season Four gets here, every time Finn Hudson is on the screen, a small voice in the back of my head is going to remind me, "that guy's dead now."  Like YouTube videos of loved ones long gone, here he is, walking around onscreen, talking, laughing.  It's Glee, so: singing and dancing, too, in that decidedly stiff Finn Hudson way.

In a large way for the celebrities of the modern era, and to a lesser but still significant degree for the rest of us, the ongoing memorial is available to us.  The Information Age can keep a greater representation of us burning brighter in memory than the old grainy Super-8 home movies and fading sepia photographs ever could.  And I have to wonder if that's a good thing.

It's good to be remembered.  When I've shuffled off this mortal coil I won't care one way or the other what's going on, but it's nice to think right now that someone then will remember me, remember what my contributions were.  But you want to only be remembered, not clung to.  I think the Facebook pages and cherished voice messages, while sweet in the moment and poignant to hear about, are ultimately stifling.  They give the bereaved a stronger icon to cling to, one that is more brightly renewed with each time it's replayed.  It invites the bereaved to continue to live in that captured slice of life, rather than just remember it and move on.  It doesn't do to dwell on the past, not even the good times.  They're past.  I know right now that I don't want anyone to get caught up in missing me that they become fixated on recordings of me, of pictures or videos or even a handwritten note that we need to buy eggs.  If I'm gone, I'm gone...but other people aren't.  Be in the same world as they are, the one that is still real.  It's a better world than one glimpsed through a window into the past, where nothing ever changes.

Remember your loved ones.  Remember your favorite movie stars, artists, friends, pets.  Remember enemies and furniture.  Remember a scary storm or a quiet evening.  They made an impression on your life and all of them had an impact on how you became what you are now.  But only remember them.  You can delete the Facebook pages and erase the YouTube videos, and let your memories be just that.
A simple stone in the ground might suffice after all.

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