Friday, October 24, 2008

From the Obits Page

". . . That must be an interesting job . . . " I get this a lot when I tell people that I edit obituaries at my local paper (the fact that I also edit letters to the editor seems to get lost in the shock of the word "obituary"). It has been an interesting job. I wrote a post about it right after I got hired. But in the months since, I've lost some of my sensitivity. It's still difficult for me to work directly with family members, and doing obituaries for young children and infants still gets me down, but for the most part, I've put a certain amount of emotional space between me and the people whose lives I'm reading about. Nevertheless, I still find myself thinking from time to time, "She is totally cool! I wonder if she'd . . . Lessie, she's dead. You're not going to be meeting her in the street anytime soon." Then I have a moment where I ponder the finality of death, sometimes do a mental hat tip to my mom and the other deceased loved ones in my life, and get back to looking for comma splices and misspelled words.

When my mom died, I actually got to write the obituary. It wasn't difficult. Most papers have a format for their obituaries and after reading one or two obituaries in my folks' local paper, I was able to churn out a suitable piece based on the information my dad gave me. The pattern usually goes like this: Name, age, place of residence, date of death, place of death, date of birth, place of birth, parents' names, schools attended, military service, date of marriage, notation of divorces, hobbies, we'll miss you, survivors, folks who died before, service times, the end. There are variations on the theme, but that's the gist of it.

It's the "hobbies" and "we'll miss you" parts that are the most interesting to me. These are the couple of sentences (at least in the cheap obits) that ostensibly tell you the most about the deceased (in the expensive obits, the whole damn thing might center around these two sections because the family is paying a truckload of money for that space, but I'll visit that later). These sentences usually go like this, "John/Jane Doe enjoyed cross-stitching, skiing, hunting, cooking, but especially, s/he loved her/his family. John/Jane was the kindest, most loving, patient mother/father/grandma/grandpa and spent his/her entire life doing everything for his/her family."

It was my experience writing my mother's obituary that clued me in to what these sentences actually show: the person that they wanted the deceased to be or the person that they think the deceased should appear to be to the public. That sounds pretty cynical, huh? But ultimately, it's true. We as a society are loathe to introduce ambivalence or nuance into our memories of our dead--at least in public. I wrote similar sentences into my mother's obituary.

But what troubles me about this practice is the extended pain it can actually cause. My mother was kind and patient. My mother was emotionally manipulative and judgmental. My mother was rock solid in her beliefs. My mother doubted her abilities and worthiness. My mother taught me a lot. My mom neglected to teach me some very important things. My mom loved me. My mom didn't love me enough to accept me for who I became. My mom sacrificed a lot for me. My mom took my decisions personally and was offended by them. My mom had an enormous capacity for love and compassion. My mom saw the world in black and white. Do you see what I'm getting at? I'm sure these same sentences could be applied to any number of the people whose lives I read about every day. The only thing they all have in common is that they all had the best of intentions.

But as it is, they were all human. And we humans have a tendency to hurt those we love even when our intentions are good. When we codify and make public only the idealized version of our loved ones, I think we do ourselves a disservice. We make it taboo to discuss the more troubling aspects of our interactions with these people and therefore interfere with the healing process.

I confess I'm somewhat at a loss to understand why we do this (and I'm totally unaware of how other cultures speak about their dead, anything anyone has to add in that respect would be welcomed). Do we feel bad talking disparagingly about someone when they're no longer there to defend themselves? Are we too overcome with grief when we write the obituary to see our loved ones in all their mottled glory? Are the believers among us afraid to face our loved ones later when we've been talking badly about them behind their backs? Are we afraid of how others will perceive our own capacity for love and compassion assuming we spoke about the less ideal aspects of our loved ones? Are we relieved that we no longer have to remember the painful things our loved ones (however inadvertently) inflicted on us? Do we, perhaps, welcome death as the way to bury not only the corpse, but also the painful associations we had with that person?

A penny for your thoughts (not really--I'm broke :). But please, I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Conflicting Moralities

Good Saturday afternoon! And welcome to Lessie's philosophy class :) Today we're going to talk about Kant and Nietzsche (it took me forever to learn to spell that correctly :). Now because I only have the equivalent of a minor in philosophy, this may not be a particularly sophisticated analysis, but this is how I perceive them.

Kant has a lovely thing called the "Categorical Imperative". I'm sure I have the exact quote lying around in one of my books somewhere, but I'm going to paraphrase him (glancing around at bookshelves to see if the anthology I'm thinking of is within easy reach . . . doesn't appear to be. Paraphrase it is). His Categorical Imperative states that individuals should always be treated as ends in themselves and never as a means to an end and that when deciding whether or not an action is moral, one should consider whether it is universally applicable or not. Kant was rather stringent in his application of the imperative; he was wary of stepping outside the boundaries that he believed his imperative set. From this stringency came a profound sense of duty to others.

Learning my philosophy at a religious institution as I did, Kant's imperative was a convenient co-opt of the Golden Rule (which we all knew Jesus had come up with first, regardless of the fact that the Buddha and other proponents of the rule had lived hundreds of years before him). We commended Kant on his ability to rationally necessitate the Golden Rule; we were down right smug, I think. 

However, not only did Kant give us philosophically sound ground for being Christian, he also provided me personally with a reason to stay in what was a very . . . difficult, conflicted place, id est my marriage (which I had entered into before studying philosophy, btw). Not only did being Mormon-Christian require one to live the Golden Rule, but it also required one to live the commandments. My impression of the commandments at the time was skewed by well meaning but misogynistic religion professors who managed to turn even the parable of the talents into an admonishment to get married and have lots of children. Well, I had gotten married and had a child up to that point, but it had all been under severe cultural pressure. My husband's and my relationship had consisted of making out in the back of my car and talking about whether or not we should get married. I felt like I had a duty to marry this apparently righteous priesthood holder and so I did (although I look back now and see that I was actually going against Kant's ideas of treating him as an end rather than as a means to an end). After I got married, I realized that I really had nothing in common spiritually, intellectually or emotionally with my husband. However, in Mormonism, short of abuse or adultery, divorce is frowned on. Plus, I'd had a child with this man and that increased the amount of duty I felt in staying with him (if for no other reason than out of duty to the child to be raised in a two-parent home). It's amazing that in our co-opting of Kant's imperative, we had managed to twist it to the point that we actually were using others as a means to our own purported salvation (but we were doing it out of duty, by god!).

Now let's talk about Nietzsche. How do I describe Nietzsche? The Nietzsche that you learn about in undergraduate philosophy classes is famous for his Will to Power. At my school, his was a dangerous school of thought. He was blamed for everything from the Nazi invasion to our modern materialistic culture. His Will to Power asserted that the Christian ethic of pity and charity was weak and prevented humanity from reaching it's full potential. If you give to your neighbor, don't do it out of smug superiority but out of a sheer excess of your own power. Do it because you are a truly great human and that's just what great humans do. At the same time, though, Nietzsche advocated for a tantalizingly individualistic world view. For Nietzsche, the only authority that one need consult was oneself. I still remember walking out of my class the day we read excerpts from his "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" being changed forever. At the time, he was like a revelation from God. Nietzsche offered me the philosophical permission to make my life what I wanted it to be. He freed me from listening to outside voices like prophets and apostles. I think a part of me knew even then that reading Nietzsche had given me permission to leave my marriage.

My marriage wasn't what I wanted out of life. I had wanted to go to graduate school and immerse myself in academia (originally I had wanted to do comparative linguistics, but I fell in love with philosophy and changed my mind). My mother had told me that I couldn't have a career and be a good mother and so I had decided I just wouldn't get married and have kids. When I was in high school, this seemed like a good idea. But I had also internalized the idea that the prophets knew what was best for my life, and so when I was told that my life's work was to get married and have babies, I decided to do it and give up my career ambitions. After all, it was clearly what God wanted me to do.

The Kantian model was enough to keep me in my marriage until I realized at some point that I was simply making myself into a means for other people's ends. Also, as I lost my belief in an afterlife, I realized that I only had one shot at life--if I was going to do anything, I had to do it now and chances are I'd have to do it by myself. Finally, I got up the courage to switch my morality. I work from the Nietzschean Will to Power. Is it easy? No. Does it hurt sometimes? Yes. Is it fun hurting other people? No. But ultimately, I was hurting so badly by hanging on to the vestiges of duty bound morality that I knew I had to give myself permission to live for me. And so here I am. A little lonely from time to time, but lonely on my own terms. And for now, that makes all the difference.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Faith in Humanity

I woke up pretty damned depressed this morning. I was feeling too keenly how very little control one has over one's life. I was resenting the dependency on others that, try as I may, I could not completely escape. I was also resenting the dependency of others on me. I suppose, as I write this, that a little of that is coming back into play. Part of what wasn't working for me in my marriage were the claims that I felt others had on me that I didn't want to honor. When I left Alistiar, it was in an attempt to show myself that I got to choose who had a claim on me and who didn't. Of course, it didn't take me long to realize that there are a lot of claims that I was making on other people that made my life bearable. And so it was that I woke up jaded and angry that it was necessary to give myself to others in order to be happy.

I moped around all morning, was late for church and close to tears throughout the service (not a whole lot of which I remember, by the way). When people asked me how I was afterward, it was almost impossible for me to keep my voice from breaking. I was miserable. But it was a pot luck Sunday, and so I decided to go ahead and stay (no good post Mormon would refuse free meals :). I sat with an older-than-me couple and we talked about languages and music and I started feeling better.

It was also forum Sunday. On a whim (I do a lot on a whim, it would seem . . .) I decided to stay for that as well. I attend the Unitarian Universalist Church and today's forum was a chance for members to look over their seven principles and decide if they were still relevant, if they were succinct or if they needed some revision. Quite a debate ensued. Each of us in that room had strong opinions about what we thought was important and what we thought needed to be changed. But debate we did. It was fantastic! We philosophized, we jested, we pouted. But we all got heard and we all knew that we were respected nonetheless.

I realized that I do indeed depend on others and that they in turn depend on me. Today I had my faith in that interdependency restored. I saw what could come of it when mutual respect was present. I still want this space that I've created for myself. I do need some time to figure out what kinds of claims I feel comfortable making and allowing. I still feel like we should be careful about the claims we make on other people--I know from first hand experience how damaging those claims can be if we don't keep the other person's needs in mind. But I learned a little gratitude for those who let me into their lives and their communities. I realized that the trade-off is delicate but can also be enriching.

(And now let's have mfranti and G play us a chorus of Kumbaya on their guitars :P, because I have clearly reached my sap limit for the day :)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Death. Again.

I'm sorry to keep going here. I think I'm slowly starting to let the reality of my mom's death sink in. I don't expect this to be a long drawn out post. But there's something that's been bothering me that I had to get off my chest.

Something my mom always assured me of when she was sick was, "I'm going to be fine. I know the Lord can take this sickness from me." Or on days when she was scared and tired, "I'm going to be okay, right? I can do this?" God, it haunts me. I was never sure, you know? I knew cancer killed in the most random fashion. I had no idea whether she'd live or not. I wanted her to live. I wanted her to beat it. But I also knew that she was continually getting mixed reports from her doctor. The cancer kept spreading, at first in little spurts that they thought were containable. After that happened the third time, I started to realize that my mom probably wasn't going to make it through this. But I couldn't tell her that. She practically plead with me to tell her she was going to be okay.

Maybe this post will go longer than I thought. Let me tell you about the days leading up to her death.

She had just gone to seek a second opinion about her condition (her oncologist had been consistently confusing her chart with someone else's). The new doctor had looked over all her records and told her that he had a new treatment for her to use. It was a more aggressive chemo treatment. I talked to my mom when she got back from his office and was excited for her that things weren't looking grim afterall. I think that was on a Friday or Thursday.

Sunday evening, I called home with some question or other and my dad answered the phone. My mom was moaning in the background. I mean moaning. Deep, labored moans. My dad told me he'd call me back. He called me to tell me that if she wasn't better by the next morning, he was taking her to the hospital.

Monday morning he called from the emergency room of a little town near our home. They were taking my mom in an ambulance to a hospital in a larger city. I could hear my mom moaning in the background. She wasn't saying anything. Just moaning.

At the larger hospital, they put her on morphine and antibiotics and then gave her three blood transfusions. The chemo had obliterated her immune system and she had a UTI, a blood infection and possible pneumonia. The cancer had also spread to her liver and so her liver wasn't functioning correctly. The blood transfusions did nothing to increase her platelet count. Monday night, my dad called me while I was at a friend's house and told me that if the antibiotics didn't start improving the situation soon, then he would move her back to our small town hospital and put her on comfort care until the end. I could hear my mom moaning in the background. My dad was calling from the hallway.

Tuesday morning my dad called again. He had taken her off the antibiotics and was getting ready to have her transferred to the hospital near home. He let me tell her that I loved her. She moaned. I made travel arrangements and was in Oklahoma by Wednesday night.

At the smaller hospital, they increased my mom's dose of morphine and sedatives. When I went to see her Thursday, she was completely unconscious. They had taken off her wig and her false teeth. Her cheek bones protruded grotesquely under her skin and her mouth was hanging open. She had small whitish whiskers on the sides of her head. Her arms were swollen with fluids. And she was pale . . . almost grey, but not.

For all of Friday and into Saturday morning, my mom lay like that. Her breathing was shallow and clogged with fluid. If someone spoke too loudly, too closely to her ear, she moaned and coughed. My dad decided he wanted to be alone with her when she died. My mom's best friend called us Saturday morning and told us to call our dad. He told us she had died. We went to the hospital again and she lay there still. She was still. Her mouth was still and hanging open. Her eyes were still and closed. Her body was still.

It hurts me so badly to think that she may have died confused and in pain. Was it better that she be unconscious for the last few days of her life? Did it keep her from having to deal with the ultimate betrayal? And where was my mom those last few days? All I saw was a sentient being reduced to nothing but pain. Why should anyone have to lose their humanity like that? There was nothing of dignity or peace in my mom's dying. Her suffering finally ceased, but not in a way that does her any good, because she ceased with it.
And now I'm left to make sense out of this. To rebel against the idea that sometimes, the only way we can stop the suffering of another person is to obliterate them.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Black v. White, Man v. Woman

Okay, bear with me, friends. I know you're probably thinking, "Great. Lessie leaves her husband and goes immediately off the deepend." But this post is in response to BiV's post and John's response.

I realize that analyzing something can change the thing somewhat, but stay with me for a minute. BiV and John were having fun with a cultural standard and the resulting rebellion against that standard. But as I got to thinking about it, I began to wonder what the response to either post would have been if it had been women dancing around in white shirts or posing in sexy black ones. So I'm interested in your thoughts. Does my being a woman change your response? Are women allowed the same playful license with their bodies yet, or are they still restricted to the realm of eye candy? Have I completely betrayed my sex? Or have I empowered myself (I have my own thoughts, but I'm interested in yours)? I'm interested also in discussions of how clothing styles and grooming standards differe between men and women and again, what they mean. Am I lucky because I get to wear makeup and expose more skin as a rule? Or am I playing into a patriarchal conspiracy?

Let me know your thoughts. And now, one final plea: be nice! I'm feeling very exposed (for obvious reasons and then add that to the fact that I still suck at photo placement).

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Let's Talk Politics

I don't know that I've gone here before on my blog. I mean, I did the post about my being in the parade. But just for the record, I'm vice chair of the Bonneville County Democrats. I ran sort of on a whim (don't run for political office on a whim, btw. More on that later). The party here is struggling with some . . . not in-fighting, but certainly some tensions between a couple of the executive officers. They wanted some new blood and so a couple of my friends asked me to run. I had been wanting to get more involved in local politics, and so I did. Imagine my surprise when I won. That's really not where I'm wanting to go, though.

I picked rather an interesting time to run, id est an election year. The entirety of my stint as vice chair so far has been sitting in on executive and central committee meetings as we try to decide how best to help our local candidates win their respective races. In case you didn't already know this about Idaho, we are a RED state. I mean really, really RED. For the first time in a long time in our county, we have several blue candidates running for different offices not only in our state and federal elections, but also right here in our county elections. It's rather exciting.

There's only one problem: no one seems to care. Let me tell you what I've learned about politics up to this point. Behind the scenes politics are painfully tedious. The committee meetings I attend drag on and on about who was in charge of getting what data to the state, how much money for this or that activity we have available, who's going to canvas the precincts, etc. It's tempting to sit and poke myself in the eye to break up the monotony. And yet, something I've also learned about behind the scenes politics are how important they are to getting the more visible things done. The vibe I get from most people who have been involved politically is that they donated some money, attended a rally or five, went to this or that fundraiser, etc. And while I don't want to discount those efforts (god knows the money they bring in is the bread and butter of our organization), there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make real change.

The unfortunate truth is that local politics are unromantic. People will go out and canvas for Obama or (gulp) McCain. But will they go out and canvas for Laun Cook? Will they take time out of their afternoons to go and register people to vote? Will they make phone calls for John McGimpsey (although John didn't mention needing phone calls this morning, but you get my point)?

I don't want to down play the importance of our national elected officials. But I also know that on a national level, it's really hard to feel like we're making a difference. My good friend puts this quote in the signature line of her emails: "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal" (Emma Goldman). I certainly understand such a sentiment. The last eight years of the Bush Administration have been some of the most painful and disasterous that the United States have ever seen. And indeed, there were certainly some stolen elections (not naming names *cough* Florida and Ohio *cough*). But now that I've been involved on a local level, I can assure you that voting does make a difference. So if you have a hard time getting jazzed up for the national elections, I don't blame you. I'm feeling pretty jaded myself. But folks, get involved locally. Gear yourselves up for mindnumbing discussions of finances and sunshine reports (which I know are important and I pay attention to, they're just so boring it hurts) but get in there and get a little dirty. It's not nearly as fun as a peace rally. But it will probably make a more immediate and noticeable difference. And we've got to start somewhere.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Separation and parenting miscellany

Well, as those of you who know me in real life already know, I've recently decided to separate from my husband. My relationship with A is something I haven't blogged a whole lot about--mostly because of the ambivalence I feel toward it. However, now that we've separated, I feel the need to explore our relationship and societie's definitions of relationships in general.
And since we're on the subject, let me tell you what happened today. I was on the phone with a friend when my daycare called. I ignored the call and let the voicemail take it. After I hung up with my friend, I forgot to check my voicemail and they didn't call back. I went about my day until about fifteen minutes ago and realized that I'd forgotten to check that voicemail. I listened to it and found out that my youngest son, Gareth, had been sick and they needed someone to come and get them. "No problem," I thought, "They would call Alistiar if they weren't able to get a hold of me." So I called Alistiar assuming that everything was taken care of. Not so. They never called him.
Is it me, or should it not be common practice if one parent is inaccessible they call the other one? I'm rather upset at the assumptions underlying this oversight. Why is it that they assumed it would be easier for me to leave my job than for my husband to leave his? Why is it they assumed that they didn't need to call him when I wasn't responding? If they insist on reinforcing these kinds of gender assumptions, then why in hell didn't they call me again?
As it turns out, he was fine afterall and I'm staying the rest of the work day, but I am absolutely incensed at their lack of effort to make sure Gareth was taken care of. I realize it's not their job to play phone tag with me all day long, but I think it should be default practice to call both parents before deciding to give up.