Wednesday, October 22, 2014

goodbye, village voice

I don't remember when I first read the Village Voice, let alone when I first saw it. But growing up in New York it was ubiquitous. I remember buying copies when I could find them upstate from the mid-70s through the 80s, and for a time when I lived in New Paltz, I had a subscription that, I remember, promised--and made good on--delivery by Saturday after new issues came out on Tuesday.

Here's what I remember best about it. There was a sense that, by cracking open the pages, you were plugging into a source, if not of Truth, then of Questing. I learned about new things, new outrages, new music, new movies, new books, new ideas that I couldn't locate anywhere else. It's the reason why if I'm in any new town I look for the local cultural weekly. And while I couldn't always take part in them--rarely did films like The Little Theif make it upstate--sometimes I could. I took the trip down to The City (and reading the Voice you always thought of it as The City) to see that Truffaut, and somehow Stranger Than Paradise made it up there. When it did I knew I was seeing a movie by a new talent with absolutely new ideas about filmmaking and what constituted a story. By age 24 I'd seen enough explosions and guns going off. I was ready for nuance.

I read all the greats in the Voice: Mailer, Christgau, Sarris, Hentoff, Bastone, Feiffer, Stamaty, Mack, Willis, Goldstein, Johnson, Plachy (okay, I looked at her stuff, but I drank it in like it was written), Barry, Rall, Barrett, Hoberman, Brown, Indiana. Listen how those names trip off my tongue! I knew I was part of a special constituency. I read Ellen Frankfort's histrionic The Voice and Kevin McAuliffe's Great American Newspaper (which was already sounding the Voice's death knell in 78). I stuck with it through the Murdoch years and when it was funded by the sales of flea collars. I stuck with it through the disgraceful firings of Eddy, Christgau, Goldstein, Hentoff, Feingold and Musto. I even stuck with it through the painful constrictions online as it became a watered-down spacewaster where, at best, one could mine it for little nuggets of tough observation.

But no more. The final sole reason I've continued to read it online, Roy Edroso's weekly Exploring the Right Wing Blogosphere, has departed, vanished, disincorporated. It is a late column. Runnin' Scared, the blog where Edroso's column appeared, is still there, and one can read archived columns. But it's not the same. I'll continue to occasionally skim Runnin' Scared, because I like seeing what the miscreants back in The City are doing. But as a regular weekly destination, as a place where I will wait up til 10 on a Sunday night because 11 east is when he updated, it will no longer exist for me. Village Voice, I shake the dust of you from my shoes.

Monday, October 13, 2014

our chameleon lives

Another eulogy, this one from last Sunday morning, when I officiated for the mother of a former student.

Calvin Trillin once wrote that when people die, windowshades go up. We learn incredible things about them, no matter how well we might have known them in life, that surprise us. Of such discoveries we usually say, “Well, who’d have thought it?”
It’s a cliché to say that death comes for us all.  We personify the unknown because it is unknown and to say of something as final as death that is as if it stalked us and hunted us down, as if otherwise we would live forever, is an effective way of making the grief we feel when others die more palatable.

But that it’s a finality we all face is true nonetheless.  We all die.  That’s the thing about life; not one of us makes it out alive.  Our lives are intimately tied up in others, for better and for worse. So when the others die we’re tempted to think it’s for the worse.  Someone we love, we’re accustomed to seeing or talking with regularly, someone whose face or voice or touch has become a given in our lives is gone now.  The chair she sat in is empty. We grieve that emptiness.  We will never get her back.  It’s hard, grieving.  It should be.  Nothing’s changed and everything’s changed.  Nothing will be the same and everything is all too familiar. 

When Marie died a few weeks ago, the shades came up. But that image suggests we’re privy to nasty secrets we shouldn’t have known, and sometimes that’s true. But it’s not that what we newly find out about people is bad. What we find more often than not is that someone we thought we knew like the proverbial roadmap of our hometown, and whose moods and ideas we thought we knew so well they could have been tattooed on our brains, was someone entirely different with other people. Perhaps more easy-going. Perhaps angrier. Perhaps less judgmental. Calmer. Icier. Happier. More frustrated. A different Marie for different situations.
That’s not unusual. Most of us are what used to be called “social butterflies,” chameleon-personalities flitting here and there, changing our moods with our change of circumstance. It’s not a bad thing. It’s how we are. Human beings are complex, erratic creatures, and frankly, as I can testify from experience, none quite so as middle-aged people.

If we’re fortunate, while we do finally face death alone, we don’t face life alone, and life is scarier.  After all, we don’t know anything about death—it’s the last great unknown territory and it’s that very ambiguity that powers both our grief and our acceptance—but we know everything there is to know about being alive and what we know should scare the pants off us.  Surviving is easy—breathe in, breathe out—but living is difficult.

 If we’re fortunate we collect companions to deal with this frightening life with us.  We get them from multiple places and do that by multiple means. Take a moment to look around you.  The results of such a collection by Marie can be seen here today. If you read her obituary you might have noted that Marie is survived by nineteen different people. Looking at the memorial pamphlet, I count over thirty. And those are just her immediate family.
If it’s true that every person’s death diminishes us, then the opposite must be equally true:  that every life expands us.  It’s natural for an animal, when it’s hurt, to withdraw from others, to curl in on itself and not let others know it’s weak.  If there is something that separates us from other animals, it’s this:  That we gather together when we’re at our weakest to share our pain.

We gather together to share grief.  We gather together to pass love.  We gather together to look into one another’s eyes and hug one another’s shoulders.  We gather together to hold one another up.  We gather together to mourn and cry.  We gather together to celebrate life.

We gather together today to honor the Marie each of us knew. The mother who raised us. The mother figure who took us in. The friend. The co-worker. The little girl we grew up with. The woman we loved. There are as many Maries in this room as there are people. Whether we knew Marie only as an occasional figure hurriedly glimpsed at the other end of the adult table at family get-togethers or as a woman we knew all our lives, we come together to pay attention to the impact she had on our lives.

In lieu of a spoken prayer I’ll ask you to take the hands of the people on either side of you.  Feel the warmth of each other’s hands, the coolness of some, the moistness of some hands, the crisp dryness of others.  Concentrate for a moment and you’ll find yourself feeling the insistent thrum of other peoples’ heartbeats.  Our lives are as fleeting and as real as that sensation.   We’re each allotted exactly the same amount of time:  a lifetime.  No more, no less.  Enjoy it. It fades all too fast.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

eulogy for a homeless father

About a week ago I was contacted by a friend on behalf of his friend whose homeless father's body had been found in a park in the hub. Both his death and his homelessness was a surprise to the two families he had left behind: other than sporadic phone calls, no one had heard from him in fifteen years and had no idea where he was. His son had contacted my friend, a Lutheran minister, for a suggestion of someone to perform the funeral who was "not too religious." My friend suggested me because of my own bout of homelessness.

After a couple meetings, we held the memorial yesterday in the son's apartment. The two families--a first wife and her adule children, and a second and her teenage children--came together for the first time in a decade and a half to mourn the death and celebrate the life of a man none of them knew what had become of.

I'm not only a minister but also a member of several online homeless and vagabond Facebook groups. I put to their members what they, as people for whom exactly this situation might happen, thought I should tell the families. Their responses, numbering a couple hundred, inform the following eulogy.

We don’t know what the last hours or days or even years of Jonathon’s life was like. We do know some things. That he had multiple health problems, including heart and lung issues, that he was addicted, at least for a while, to alcohol, that he was fending for himself in a losing battle against the entropy all of us are heir to, to the extent that this man, a mere 49 years old, could be discovered dead and that it could be considered a natural death. It is fitting that the person who discovered Jonathon’s body was also probably homeless. In the final analysis, each of us has only each other. 
It’s easy to mistake pride for self-sufficiency. As most of you are aware, I was myself homeless for several years, so I feel comfortable telling you that while it might be tempting to think of Jonathon’s last years in terms of unremitting pain, depression, and desperation, that isn’t all there was to it. Those elements were there, certainly, but just like we can’t subsist entirely on a diet of charred toast, his life was undoubtedly leavened by the sweetness of life. Gratitude at the kiss of warm sunlight on his face when he least expected it. Appreciation at the gifts of money and food and shelter offered him. Warmth in his belly at the taste of liquor or cigarettes, the delicious succulence of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The sweet release of lying down to rest, the wonder of dreams. He felt love, perhaps a little ashamed at the families he left behind, but also perhaps relief in, in his mind, rescuing them from the burden of his deterioration.
Enough with idle speculation. What we do know is this: he was ill his last years, he lived on the streets here and maybe spent time in shelters, he died from the combination of his diseases and exposure, and he did not reach out to anyone here for help. Those are hard, uncomfortable truths. Perhaps they should be. Not that anyone should feel bad at not having provided help or feel anger with Jonathon because he didn’t ask for it. They’re hard because people, like life itself, are complicated. For whatever reasons, to conquer whatever demons, Jonathon made the decisions he did and accepting them and him is the final dignity we can give him.
Loving him in death is the best we can hope for. Or, if not love, acceptance of the way he chose to live his last years. We are all each other has got, and trying to change anyone, in death as in life, only leads to frustration. Jonathon’s life and death, for all the ways it hurts us, has dignity to it, as all life has dignity. We are born, we live, and we die. A single known sandwiched between two portals to the unknown. Buddhists tell the story that the earth is made up of ocean and a single ring floats on it. Every thousand years an ancient tortoise crawls from the bottom mud and rises achingly for a breath of fresh air. He breaks free of his resting place, journeys to where the sky can be seen, gulps a single lungful of air, and descends rest again in the mud. They say as often as that tortoise crests the surface with his head in that ring during each thousand year event, just as often are we born. To be born is rare and lucky. It must be honored. Jonathon’s life was no more or less dignified than any of ours. You are lucky to have known him, to have loved him.
In my faith there’s a ritual we sometimes perform at the death of a member of our community. Will you gather in a ring and take hold of the hand of the persons next to you. We sing the words but since you don't know the tune, we'll just say them together. Please repeat after me: “Spirit of Life, come unto me. Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea; move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close, wings set me free. Spirit of Life, come to me. Come to me.”
 [Prayer] God of tears and the mysterious silence, God of suffering and God of hope, you have made for everything a season. This is the season of our sorrow, of our grief, and we pray for grace to deal with what seems impossible to deal with. We remember the promise made to those who mourn, yet too often it seems that comfort is beyond our grasp. We know that we cannot bear this burden alone. Should we pray for our grief to be transformed or, is the purpose of our grief to transform us? Will our sorrow lead somewhere unexpected? Might it lead us back to life if we follow it? Is it a reminder of the precious reality of life and love? The death of Jonathon has created a vast, empty space within our lives, a great longing within our hearts. Can it ever be filled? Can it be healed by the sacred memory that makes Jonathon forever a part of us?
So many questions, O God, and so much silence. May we be patient toward all that is unanswered in our hearts. And may others be patient with us, with our sorrow, our anger, our fear and our questions. We are those who mourn. We seek the comfort that we can offer each other and the blessings of divine love and grace. Amen.

[Benediction] Take courage, friends. The path is never clear, the end is always in doubt, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. Deep down, there is a greater truth: you are not alone.