A year later and I am back visiting the dead, this time questioning the responsibility of putting new life into the world.
Weaving in and out of the crypts and private chapels, the walls are lined with vessels holding ashes, shelves holding caskets, and the letters of names. It takes a strain of my imagination to fill-in the entire arc of a life that now sits in mostly forgotten urns, placeholders. Once behind the names were fleshes of personality, interactions that effected causality, relational change, consequences in the environment, impressions on the psyches of others — and then they were gone. Except for a spot in a tiny little box aside thousands of others, now also mere words.
(Painting, “Tremolo,” by Agnes Martin, 1967.)
This year, it struck me that the cast of musicians performing here and there among the dead were stand-ins, intermediaries. They attracted hordes of the living into this solemn place on the longest day of the year to challenge the human aloofness towards the dead, to weigh the untranslatable meanings behind those words. With mixed success. Even though evidence of death towers on all sides, our finite narratives and rehearsed terminal endings at the end of every sentence — we remain distracted from our own dying.
We committed to one dark grotto of those born in the early 1800’s. A professional cellist sat inside with her laptop and synthesizer. Sometime while she was tuning her cello and tapping on her laptop, it dawned on us that she was in high performance. The ambiguous noises were experiments against the classical instrument’s boundaries: a stutter and screech here, a falling note there, a computer’s response, and the cellist’s retort. When she finished her “tuning” performance and nodded her head to applause, we understood that the provisional and dissonant duet between cellist and computer highlighted the aleatory relationship between existence and not-existence — and was indeed beautiful music. As Steiner says, art reminds us that there is something rather than nothing, only by virtue of grace.
The scene seared into my heart the ruminating words I had read that day of my dear friend’s husband having only days to live. They were going down their road until a few weeks ago, their life was sideswiped by illness and overturned into a tragic twilight. At home in hospice care, they are surrounded by friends and family who improvise themselves into a blanket of love and support for his last moments. There is no score or predictable soundtrack here. Nor, as Pamela says, is this life a dress rehearsal. But at best we merely hear the music at all.
(Painting, “Trumpet,” by Agnes Martin, 1967)
My friend this evening and I jest that it is just as much the beauty of the performer as it is the melodic tunes (amidst many dissonant-sounding experimental musicians) that has drawn a thick crowd into side room of the columbarium. Sitting on the stone floor in vulnerable elegance, she plays odd, unrecognizable instruments in classical improvisations. And we, the living, over a trickling fountain lined with pertly pink and red impatiens, “watch” her fill the space of the eternally invisible with unseen timbres and undulating wavelengths of passionate percussion. When she breathes into a bamboo flute with an electronic lung holding a previous refrain to which she responds in turn, a strange but pleasing chorus emerges into a rhythm of labored breath, a futile and yet beautiful resuscitation.
(In the stairwell from one chapel to another, we overhear a woman remark that this is what people from the rest of the country think Californians do everyday.)
But the true entrance into me does not occur by that willful anticipation of art, just as much as predicted words here do not alight, but sink. Instead it happened when an unexpected noise entered the back of our music-filled worship. It announced the entrance of a young, disabled girl with the cognition of a child ten years younger. She burst into this delicate space, hugging a 3-foot Barney and two teddy bears, and proceeded to march directly to within inches of the musician. The performer was startled but without missing a note, welcomed her softly with her eyes. And the girl of a strange grammar, much to my held breath’s relief, plopped herself front and center with no further histrionics. While the music pulsed along, the girl’s father sat down in the back, occasionally waving a connective hello to his girl. But she is now entranced by the familiarly foreign music, playing seriously with one of the bear’s ears — because afterall, this is about our ears.
And I, the helicopter parent, who constantly restricts my exuberant son in a cloying distrust and tiresome fear of violating the perceived comfort of everyone around me, orchestrating him here and there so as to fit who-knows-what expectations, I succumbed to this scene. Yes, a carnival of existence among the backdrop of non-existence, of Nothingness — but mostly of trusting surrender. There in front of the dead, the distracted living, too — and because of the little bit of life under my domain that is there despite me — my heart busted itself into tears.
“As the shrine of Nothing, death is the shelter of Being.” — Heidegger
(Agnes Martin’s last painting, “Untitled,” 2004)