On the day with the longest daylight of the year, the Northern Solstice, I found myself surrounded by thousands of dead people. Yes, I am probably over-working the mortality theme of late into an insipid pulp, what with all of its depressing seriousness. But at the columbarium in Oakland tonight, the chapels, cloisters, and crypts filled with the remains of the dead carried the very alive music of more than 30 musicians, as apparently happens every solstice.
In following our ears to the next musician around each corner, we worked our way through the names of bookended lives lining the niches, hallways and courtyards built almost as an ascending and descending gothic maze. Corners and alcoved places exist for the bereaved to experience a meditative solitude away from others, while the constant light through open ceilings and skylights reminds of an other place, and of human smallness. Tonight, the meditators, the remembering, were music-makers.
Among the more recently interred, an accordionist sat on a metal folding chair in a marble alcove and played accomplished polkas and waltzes and even a French classic — the same song I heard on a lively street behind the Notre Dame of Paris. Then, I sat looking at candy colored tulips in the sunny, cathedral garden, while couples cooed at the river, tourists gawked at the sentinel and soaring architecture, and locals ambled on their itinerant paths to bakeries, friendly meetings, work duties. Such aspirating and pumping accordion music is of a buzzing life, even as it was played tonight among the dead. The borderline absurdity of this accordion music in what is usually a solemn and silent, heart-heavy and self-reflective space was almost sublime. Like the last scene of Life is Beautiful, when the parade of humanity, and a boy full of life, marches out of a death camp.
And there was an incredibly serious experimental piano player, in a long hallway of glass-enclosed rows of urns, pounding and trilling her piano in utter dissonant refrains. Our toddler son was fascinating himself in the gurgling, concrete memorial fountain situated a few feet in front of her, and during a particular dark and howling section of her work, he crooned his neck up to the opening in the ceiling, and sang, Bubbles, Bubbles, Buuuuuuubbbbbbles, as if to commune with the alienating musician and her intentionally awful and emotionally grueling composition.
And of course, the moment of Being. I ducked into a light-filled crypt, where written passages of St. Luke adorn the stacks of shelved lives reduced to a plaque of name and date, a date far enough in antiquity that nothing is remembered of them except their grave marker. There, a welcoming, professionally-attired woman, Laurie Amat, gracefully filled the space of the dead with her operatic voice, lilting and trembling and belting and reverberating against the stone architecture. Her melodic voice ushered me in, but as she faced the places that contained the dead, her audience, I knew that I was superfluous. Her talents were refreshment for those who cannot sing or listen anymore. She was an instrument upon which an aliveness came home to acknowledge, to reach even, the realm of the unalive. It was a remembrance for the forgotten. And it was a reminder that I, like the thousands surrounding me who are reduced to ashes, urns, plaques and one or two mementos left by a dwindling number of adoring survivors, last for just a second on this earth — just like one of her perfectly pitched, honeyed notes as it disappears into the ethers, like the note before it. At first it hurt to let go of all that my self thinks is important, those empirical requirements of the everyday. And yet, the more I disappeared into the moment, I didn’t care that I was gone, forgotten. In fact, I relished it.
“If again we should find if we took a walk with our friend that he is alive to everything — to ugliness, sordidity, beauty, amusement. He follows every thought careless where it may lead him. He discusses openly what used never to be mentioned privately. And this very freedom and curiosity are perhaps the cause of what appears to be his most marked characteristic — the strange way in which things that have no apparent connection are associated in his mind. Feelings which used to come single and separate do so no longer. Beauty is part ugliness; amusement part disgust; pleasure part pain. Emotions which used to enter the mind whole are now broken up on the threshold.” Virginia Woolf