A year ago, when this photo was taken, her hair was longer and they were both smaller. But already they barely fit into the bath tub together. How is it that they still manage to squeeze in there, side by side, today? Somehow, they do. Not for too much longer, I think. But perhaps by the time he's finally outgrown bathtime with his sister, the baby will be ready to take his place.
Friday morning I went to a funeral for a nine-year-old.
Walking into the church, I shook the dad’s hand and gave the mom a hug. “You took our last family photos,” she said with a sad smile.
“That was a good day,” I said, but there were more people behind me and each of them needed to be seen. I moved along into the pews and sat down.
I had taken their pictures, last summer. And it had been a good day. It was toward the end of July, a sunny day that didn’t have the oppressive heat that August and September can have. There was a nice breeze coming in off the bay, and the paths at the resort where they were staying were shady and quiet. Both parents remarked several times how good a mood he was in that day, how well he was doing. It was hard for me to tell, but I believed them. And right at the end, as I was packing up to leave, the mom gasped and said, “Oh look, he’s smiling!”
I just barely caught the moment. Today the photo was on the back of the program.
They wanted the day to be a celebration, so I tried not to cry too much. But it’s hard to see a nine-year-old die. He had been declining for the whole time we’d known them, victim of a rare genetic disease. By the time I took their pictures last year he couldn’t sit up, hold things, eat, or even make eye contact. Maybe we knew this day was coming. That doesn’t make it any easier.
I could see the pain in the way his mom clutched his stuffed Spider-Man to her chest, in the lay of his dad’s white-gloved hand atop the casket as they walked it down the aisle. But there was determination, too, to remember his life more than his death.
Just after the family entered the room, I noticed a man walk up one of the side aisles carrying a pair of big SLR cameras. I recognized the rig: the standard event photographer’s kit. I wondered to myself, if this were me, if this were my son’s funeral, would I want there to be pictures? Wouldn’t I want the memories I looked at to be the good ones? But then, I’ve lost a lot of people in my life, and I’ve never stopped thinking about their memorials either. What would I give to have a photograph of the day we scattered my grandfather’s ashes into San Francisco Bay, or of the way the synagogue looked at my friend Aaron’s funeral when I was ten—even just to remember clearly what he looked like. I do remember the other parts, the parts that made me smile or laugh. But these ones matter too.
As the ceremony began and the priest’s voice rose and fell in chanting, my mind wandered. I remembered the weight of my great-grandfather’s casket, walking with my dad and his cousins as pallbearers. The old men who walked behind us, stooped and shuffling. The way my grandfather looked in his hospital bed on the day he died. I wanted to be present, aware, paying my respects in the here and now, but perhaps we’re all selfish creatures on some level.
The ceremony was nice. The man who led the congregation in song had a beautiful voice. And then it was over. I left, went to work, and tried to focus on the next thing. One foot after the other.
How do you move on, though? I’ve been to more funerals than I can remember now, and I know I have gotten past the grief, the feeling of life being different, distant. But I don’t really know how it happens. Nor when. Nor when it should.
There are so many things I don’t know. I don’t know how to tell them that I feel for them, that their loss makes my heart heavy, or even if I should; they don’t need to bear the burden of my feelings on top of their own. I don’t know what I can do for them.
What have I ever done? Organized a charity event, once. A few visits, here and there, a few conversations. Donated money to research for a cure for their son’s disease. Took their family pictures. Sent flowers. Showed up at their son’s funeral. A handshake. A hug. Is it enough? How could anything ever be enough?
I don’t know what the right thing to do is, for them, for me, for any of you reading this. I can hold them in my heart, and think about the fact that their son had a life. A hard one, yes, a short one, but a life nonetheless, and one that I can remember had good times, too, and love. He passed peacefully, surrounded by family and friends, which is as good an end as any of us could hope for.
And there’s this: I know that his parents would appreciate it if you took a moment to learn a bit about Tay-Sachs disease, and, if you can, help support the research efforts with a donation. You can also donate directly to the family’s memorial fund here.
Life is short, for all of us. Hug your kids, call your parents, spend time with your friends. Be mindful of the good things you have, and give thanks for them.
Jan, Ferd, Audrey, we love you.
She had spent the whole afternoon playing outside. "They're presents!" she said.
A few days later it rained unexpectedly. (Here, rain is never expected.) She cried to see her presents erased.
"Honey, chalk is not forever," I said. "You can draw new presents tomorrow. That's what makes chalk fun"
She didn't understand, and just kept crying, broken-hearted that the work of an afternoon was destroyed.
(Because, to a three-year-old, an afternoon is a lifetime.)
But, by the time the pavement had dried, so had her tears. She was on to other things.
Authenticity, Fiction, Truth, Lies, and Jenny Lewis
I’ve been a little obsessed with Jenny Lewis lately.
I should back up a bit. A while ago I was out for one of my morning runs, listening to one of the one of the “workout” stations on Spotify. Most of the songs that came on were fairly terrible, but the rhythms were all propulsive enough to keep me chugging along. Some awful pop nonsense faded out, leaving nothing but the sound of my footfalls and labored breathing for a moment. Then a few chiming guitar notes rang out of the silence, a quick tempo drum beat kicked in, and there was Jenny Lewis singing about how she’s bad news.
I don’t know if it’s a great song. But there’s something about the way she sings it that makes me believe. “C’mere!” she shouts to her lover, her voice forceful but wild, maybe desperate. The guitar growls in answer and the drums stutter in syncopation like someone tripping over their own feet. I’m drawn in, and I can’t help but wonder: did you do this? Did this happen?
A few months after that morning run, a Facebook friend recommended her solo album, The Voyager. “I can’t stop listening to it,” my friend said. I promptly added the album to my “To Investigate” playlist and forgot about it until last month, and now I can’t stop listening to it either. Throughout the ten songs, Lewis seems to be struggling with regret and disillusionment, the pain of seeing what your life is as you head into middle age, and how it’s different from what you might have thought.
There’s only one difference between you and me
When I look at myself, all I can see:
I’m just another lady without a baby.
I used to think you could save me,
I’ve been wandering lately
Heard she’s having your baby,
And everything’s so amazing
How could I resist her,
I had longed for a big sister
And I wanted to kiss her,
But I hadn’t done that
And, again, I want to know: When you wrote this, were you remembering or imagining? Are you singing in your voice, or someone else’s?
But why? Why do I care? Do the emotions mean more if they are drawn from her own life? And, if so, how does that work?
Almost all of my own work—and certainly the work that has resonated the most with viewers—is about myself. I try to reach for something other people can relate to, but I do this by showing things that are particular to me. And, thinking over my favorite work from other photographers, much of it is drawn from highly personal experiences. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Andi Schreiber’s Pretty, Please. Duane Michals’s The House I Once Called Home. Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota.
And yet, as much as I seem to value “honesty” and “authenticity” in music and photography, the same isn’t true for, say, books or movies. Of course there are autobiographical examples of each that I love, but I don’t love them more than my favorite works of fiction. Michael Ende never literally visited Fantastica, and yet that doesn’t diminish my feeling of wonder when I read The Neverending Story. Rick Blaine never had a club in Morocco, but the end of Casablanca still puts a lump in my throat. In fact, one of the things I have always said I most admire about novelists is their ability to bring things into being that never existed before, through the sheer force of their imaginations. If they can get me to feel something, that’s real, whether or not the events of their stories actually happened.
Why doesn’t this hold for songs or pictures, then? Mind you, there are fictions in lyrics and images that I enjoy, but the ones that stick with me the most, that I keep coming back to over and over, all of them come from life. Photographs need not be straight or documentary, and lyrics need not be literal, but the driving impulses behind my favorites of each are nearly always emotions and experiences that the artist really lived.
Is it a question of immediacy? A movie is populated with people you know are actors, and words on a page need you to interpret them, to picture them in your head. But when a singer says “I,” it’s hard to hear a persona in that, at least the first few times you hear it. And when you look at a photograph, it’s hard to get past the notion that what’s in the image was really in front of the camera, that the photographer was really there in the room. In either case, there’s room for fiction and lies, and interesting work can and has been made that plays on the audience’s ingenuousness, their expectation of honesty. But then the experience becomes intellectual instead of visceral. There’s value in that, too, but it’s never what I return to more than once or twice.
So then, where does that leave me with Jenny Lewis and her songs? I don’t know if she made them up or not. If I were to find out one way or another, would I care about them more or less? I’m not sure. Authenticity and honesty in art certainly don’t require literal truth. I’m reminded of a bit of advice that photographer James Luckett gave his students about writing an artist statement:
You have no duty to the facts. Your loyalty is to the honesty of your ideas, emotions, dreams, desires and needs; what Werner Herzog calls the ecstatic truth. That is your goal.
If what you’ve felt is real and you’ve put that into your work, then the work is honest, whether or not it depicts actual events. I like that idea, and I certainly can’t argue against it as advice for an artist. As part of the audience, though, I still haven’t made up my mind. But I suppose if the beat is propulsive enough, I’ll keep running.
Growing up in a city of over a million people, they do not see much of wildness. They see it here and there, of course, but they don't live with it, the way we did when we were young.
They came upon this little thing, tiny and cute but wild nonetheless. I watched while they built a corral of sticks and fashioned a little trough from a bottlecap, picking clover so it could eat. They were disappointed that it scurried away so quickly, unhindered by their fences. Why wouldn't it stay, so that they could love it and protect it, so that they could look at its adorableness and smile? But, whatever their will, it had its own drives and soon went on its way.
Life Tucked Aside
A Few Quick-Hit Reviews
The Book of Life: I’ve been thinking a lot about representations of other cultures in American film and television lately, so the idea of a kid’s movie centering around Mexican folklore, which was written, directed, and produced by Mexicans, seemed intriguing. I honestly have no idea how good a job it does at representing Mexican stories, being neither Mexican, myself, nor an expert in Mexican traditional or modern culture. What I can say is that the animation style was both beautiful and (I thought) innovative, with the character design cleverly echoing the narrative structure—the main plot is presented as a story-in-story, and the characters in that plot look like wooden dolls. Moreover, it was a fun, light movie that both my kids and I enjoyed. (IMDb)
Paddington: At the risk of damning with faint praise, I have to say that this movie was not nearly as bad as I expected it to be. Like many parents with young children, Juliette and I will often take any excuse to be able to go to the movies with our kids—hence why I found myself at Walking With Dinosaurs 3D last year. The trailers for Paddington didn’t leave me feeling very confident that I’d get more out of the experience than having an opportunity to eat popcorn with my kids, but despite the somewhat off-putting animation of the title character, I actually thought this movie had its charms. Maybe I’m just a sucker for English accents. (IMDb)
Guardians of the Galaxy: By the time I had finally gotten around to seeing this movie, the conversation around it has gone through a pretty remarkable cycle. At first it seemed like everyone expected it to be terrible, then it became a surprise hit. By the end of the summer, people were holding it up as an example of a new wave of American cinema, holding it up as an example of the greatness underlying a form of pop culture previously seen as a guilty pleasure at best. But by the time the awards season had started, everyone had backed off a bit, ultimately deciding it was a lot of fun but probably didn’t deserve a Best Picture nomination. For me, it was neither more nor less than I expected. Everything people loved about it—Chris Pratt, the soundtrack, the action sequences, the sense of humor—I loved about it. Everything people thought was a little over the top, well, I agreed with that as well. All in all, a fun action movie that probably won’t end up changing the world. (IMDb)
A Quiet Moment
By Ann Leckie
One of the things that struck me the most about Ancillary Sword as I was reading it is that it is more overtly political than the first book, Ancillary Justice was. Of course, Ancillary Justice, itself, was quite a strong feminist statement, but, as I mentioned in my review of that book, its political function was mainly executed in the narrator’s voice and particularly her use of pronouns, rather than through the plot, and thus was more subversive than overt. That examination of gender politics is certainly still at work in this second installment of the trilogy, but author Ann Leckie also uses the main action of the story to look at class and economic power structures. Of course, with that kind of overtness comes the danger of being overly didactic, but I think that Leckie has done quite a skillful job of creating a book that both has a message and is also a good story.
In Ancillary Sword, Breq—the AI protagonist from the first book—is given command of a ship of her own and sent to a distant planet with orders to maintain peace there against the brewing civil war that began at the end of Ancillary Justice. As it turns out, the planet is a major source of tea, a staple agricultural product of the space empire in which the series takes place, and as so often is the case even in our real world, there is a huge disparity in wealth and power between the owners of the planet’s tea plantations and the people who actually work the land. Numerous intertwined plots and schemes arise, and Breq has to find a way to both maintain vigilance toward the larger events of the coming war, as well as work toward social justice for the downtrodden people of the planet and station where she’s been assigned.
The economic significance of tea in the universe of this series underlies much of the fundamental power structures in this book, and I was reminded at times of Arrakis and the spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune. However, where Dune is a story about revolution and war (among other things), Ancillary Sword sees its tensions play out in community activism and legal drama. Again, it would be easy for this sort of thing to drift into heavy-handedness, but Leckie really does bring it all together quite impressively, and the result is a tight, well-paced story that manages both to advance the overall series and still delivery a pretty sharp commentary about power and class in our own world.
Of course, this sort of commentary is not particluarly new in the world of science fiction—the genre has been used to examine contemporary issues since its inception. But that this is not a new phenomenon is by no means a criticism; rather, I’d say that Leckie carries on the tradition proudly.
Ancillary Sword is a very different feeling book from its predecessor, so readers looking for something to hit all the same notes may find some disappointment there. But taken on its own merits, I think it’s a damn effective book and I highly recommend it.
Started: 1/28/2015 | Finished: 2/9/2015