A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 341: From Death, Life Renewed

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Today marks five years to the day that I sat at my Mom’s bedside and watched her die. She had lived an incredibly gracious, humble life. I felt humbled to be there with her for her final breath. And I felt such grace in that room, in the emotions and character of the family present, in the God who took her home amidst her struggle with Alzheimer’s.

I decided to re-post the very first article I wrote on this blog back on Dec. 27, 2013. I reflect on her death, yes, but more so on the reality of mortality. There is something about being confronted by death in such a personal, intimate way. Hopefully you’ll see as you read this that I don’t mean that to sound morbid or depressing; in fact, I hope you’ll see that it can lead us to living life far more graciously, humbly and exquisitely than we tend to do.

Here is that very first post:

A little more than a year ago I sat by the bedside of my mom as she panted out her last breath of life. I looked into her eyes as that moment approached, told her I loved her, and gave her permission on behalf of my siblings to “go home”, as I phrased it. It was a sacred moment, a heart-breaking moment, and a privileged moment all at the same time. I have never been that close to death, never been in the room, staring death in the face, when it appeared. I had never even contemplated being that intimate with death. Contrary to popular imaginings, it was not a frightening thing or a gruesome thing. It got me thinking how our end is so much a part of who we are. It is just a moment, like birth in that way, yet a defining moment.

I am in so many ways an average middle-aged man, edging closer to 50 as I write this. As an average middle-aged man I realize that this time of life is a typical time to consider mortality; perhaps even more typical than the supposed “mid-life crisis” that is celebrated in song and story. But the experience in that moment, those brief minutes, of watching my mom pass from life to death have pushed me beyond the superficialities of hair transplants and sports cars. I now consider death in general and my death specifically without fear. Funny, that.

We live in a modern society that is so far removed from the reality of death. In fact, it seems that we try to wipe it from our communal subconscious with our worship of youth, culture of athletic clubs, and overall sanitization of all things moribund. At one time the experience of death was a common thing, a shared event that involved whole families and villages. Certainly, from the early days of childhood people would have memories of seeing the dying and dead, going through the mourning, burying the passed in the ground and moving on with life. But this is not our experience any longer. And I do believe we are the more pathetic culture because of this fact. We are to be pitied because we do not live with the reality of death close at hand.

With death close, we learn more and more that each day is a gift. I know that is a hackneyed thing to write. My apologies. However, it is still true. As being plunged into total darkness helps you appreciate a tiny light; as gasping for breath on a mountaintop helps you appreciate the air you take in easily with each breath; death helps you truly and deeply appreciate life. What a gift, then, is that part of each of our lives we, ironically, fear and push far, far away from our minds and experiences.

Those are some deep thoughts for a first blog, I know. Likely, I won’t get that profound on a regular basis (if my past history holds true, that is). But I do hope to use this forum to share thoughts on existence – yours, mine – and perhaps help us all to embrace the time we’ve been given with the kind of bear hug it deserves.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 340: Florence Sings Soul-to-Soul

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Florence Welch doesn’t just have a powerful voice, she has a voice that you can feel inside when you listen to her, causing your heart to leap like its been given a blast of adrenaline. Her singing is explosive, dramatic, and stirring. Listening to her one is tempted to believe that music can, indeed, bring healing.

Today I want to share with you a video of Florence visiting a sick fan in hospital. The woman, Karinya, wanted to attend a local concert by Florence + the Machine but was too ill to do so. So the music came to her. This is an amazing moment where an artist looks face-to-face with someone and delivers perhaps the most meaningful version of “The Dog Days are Over” she’s ever sung. An unforgettable experience for both of them. Truly a heart-to-heart moment, a soul-to-soul moment. Beautiful.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 339: Rothko in 60 Seconds

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Mark Rothko, White Band No. 27, 1954

Abstract art is not everyone’s bag. But the reality is that different forms of abstraction have been crucially important to the evolution of art and, frankly, have influenced many, many motifs we’ve come to accept in contemporary culture. Mark Rothko is a giant in the area of Abstract Expressionism (though he himself hated those labels). If you’ve ever come across one of his paintings in a gallery space, they are quite striking but perhaps you still don’t totally get it. I’m here to tell you, as someone who got his Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, that’s okay.  Abstract art seems simple on first viewing but reveals itself to be far more deep and complicated the longer you ponder it. It can be rewarding and frustrating in equal measure. I may be an artist but I get it, it ain’t always easy to love.

Recently I came upon this 60 second video from the Royal Academy of Arts in London, England that succinctly and clearly explains the impact of the art of Mark Rothko. To me, it is a very helpful minute to guiding anyone to a better appreciation of abstraction. Enjoy.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 338: A Walkabout on the Hill

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It is de rigueur to make a visit to Parliament Hill when you’re a tourist in the city of Ottawa, Ontario. However, even us residents are reminded now and again just how picturesque that iconic area can be.

I had a serendipitous opportunity to take a stroll around the Hill yesterday morning, when a bright blue sky and brilliant sunshine illuminated the historic buildings and monuments, the panoramic vistas and symbols of Canada. I had gone downtown to collect the money I had made of an artwork I sold a month ago in a pub called the Atomic Rooster. The staff who could access the money was not going to be in for another hour so, with my Second Cup coffee in hand, I took a walk.

The resulting photos are only with my cell phone camera but it turned out to be a relaxing and re-creating morning for me. Below are the shots I took, giving you a glimpse of the centerpiece of this city. I do love this place so, I cannot deny it.

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A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 337: Sunday God Quote – David

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Psalm 27

Of David.

The Lord is my light and my salvation—
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When the wicked advance against me
    to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes
    who will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me,
    my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
    even then I will be confident.

One thing I ask from the Lord,
    this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
    and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
    he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
    and set me high upon a rock.

Then my head will be exalted
    above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
    I will sing and make music to the Lord.

Hear my voice when I call, Lord;
    be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, I will seek.
Do not hide your face from me,
    do not turn your servant away in anger;
    you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
    God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me,
    the Lord will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, Lord;
    lead me in a straight path
    because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
    for false witnesses rise up against me,
    spouting malicious accusations.

13 I remain confident of this:
    I will see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and take heart
    and wait for the Lord.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 336: Saturday Life Quotes – Bowie

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“Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary? When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.”

David Bowie dwelt in the world with the rest of us but wasn’t really like the rest of us. It is hard to believe that it was almost two years ago that he died. I was never a Bowie fan but, as an artist, I always appreciated his daring and creative moxie. He was seemingly unafraid to create dangerously for most of his life and many, many people loved him for it. Never the warmest figure alive in pop music, he was still able to reach people’s hearts. Mostly, I’ve learned since his death, he reached those people who have always felt marginalized and isolated from the “normal” world. That is a true gift.

He was a poet not just in how he used words but, maybe more so, in how he crafted his own life into a postmodern pastiche of various personalities and sensibilities. Bowie provides today’s Saturday Life Quotes:

“Speak in extremes, it’ll save you time. ”

“There’s a terror in knowing what the world is about”

“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”

“The truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.”

“Once you lose that sense of wonder at being alive, you’re pretty much on the way out…”

“As you get older the questions come down to two or three. How long have I got and what am I gonna do with the time I’ve got left?”

“It’s always time to question what has become standard and established.”

“Written in pain, written in awe
By a puzzled man who questioned
What we were here for”

“Gentleness clears the soul
Love cleans the mind
And makes it Free.”

 

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 334: Music My Rock

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“We’ve got roots/Music my rock/In the storm that life blows/It’s the anchor that holds/Play me some roots/Music my rock/In the storm that life blows/It’s the shelter I know” – Bedouin Soundclash, “Music My Rock”

I woke up the other day feeling like I had been hit by a train. No, it wasn’t a hangover. I don’t do that anymore. Haven’t dealt with that in 30 years, to tell the truth. Wish it was because of some kind of partying the night before but, no, it was just being 51 and dealing with osteoarthritis in my hips. Me and Sleep are not the best of friends these days. We used to get along so well together but recently there has been a noticeable rift in our relationship.

I had the day off which should be great but knowing I had errands to run and feeling like poo-poo on a shingle, it didn’t seem all that great. I hopped in my car to head across the city and, as I so often do, found solace almost instantly in music.

We live in an age where many people listen to music in their cars, while they’re on the bus, standing in lines, going for walks, operating heavy machinery, etc. I’m not sure of the percentages but I’d have to think most of those people are listening to their music, that is, the stuff they put on their device, their playlists, their choices. I believe I am probably in the minority in that I really enjoy surfing the radio dial when I drive. I am well aware that this is seen as an old fashioned form of listening to music. I am also aware (painfully aware) that a lot of radio just flat out stinks to infinity and beyond. Trust me, I am a major whiner when it comes to radio, pining for real DJs who spin music for discerning ears, not at the behest of a corporation and/or a set playlist and/or a good-music deaf public. However, I still love a good radio journey during my journeys (as long as they’re not playing any Journey).

There is something about going from radio station to radio station, seeking those surprises, those familiar things, those tunes or lines from a song that bring things to mind or cause you to think about something you didn’t expect. Some songs bring me to another time and place, help me remember people and events. Some songs just make me feel good. Other songs challenge me and wake up my spirit and brain. Certainly, I could get this from my own playlist but to allow myself to be in a place that is open to serendipity is so much more rewarding.

On this most recent journey I decided to make a mental note of the songs I heard, the places on the radio dial I stopped and listened, either to the entire song or just catching a part of it. In no particular order (because my mental notes are never that orderly) my drive was something like this…

K-Os – “Sunday Morning”Toronto rock-n-hip-hopper who I introduced to my family a decade ago… Memories came back of taking my family to see K-Os at the opening of Winterlude in February here in Ottawa, standing in the freezing cold and blowing snow in the bleachers with my son who must have been only 10 or 11 at the time, seeing my wife and daughter on the floor nearer the stage, huddled with everyone else looking like “March of the Penguins”, fearing that my son was getting too cold, offering to take him inside to warm up and having him say with chattering teeth, “No! Then I’ll miss K-Os!”

Robbie Robertson – “Showdown at Big Sky”More Canadian content, this time the songwriting mastermind behind the Band and his late 80’s self-titled debut which blew me away, it is the soundtrack to my art school days as strains of this song bring me back to the painting studio, to my cassette tape player and Robbie accompanying my creativity in that space of such great memories, where I asked my wife out for the very first time, where I hung out with like-minded crazy people creating crazy stuff… 

CCR – “Born on the Bayou”At 17 years old I lived in Cambridge, England for a semester as my dad went to Cambridge University on sabbatical, there I had two cassette tapes to my name – TWO – one was Workingman’s Dead by the Grateful Dead, the other a Greatest Hits compilation by CCR, safe to say I got to know that music well… To this day, CCR, of all bands, reminds me of England, the pub across the street, the double-decker buses, cricket on TV and Cadburys Dairy Milk for a special treat… Who’d have thought a song about the Bayou could bring back memories of Britain

Semisonic – “Closing Time”Part of the soundtrack of my thirties and, as it turns out, a greatly misinterpreted song… It is not, primarily, about a literal closing time – songwriter Dan Wilson wrote the song in anticipation of fatherhood, thinking of that future child of his one day being pushed out of the womb like a bouncer would push someone out of a bar… After I heard that, it has caused me to listen more closely to the lyrics… All I know for sure is the closing line of “Closing Time” is a killer: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”

Elton John – “Tiny Dancer”I grew up on Elton John in that he was a favorite of my older brothers and sisters, being the baby meant absorbing a lot of music along the way… But this song in particular cannot pass my brain without thinking of a pivotal scene in the movie “Almost Famous” when the fictional ’70’s rock band Stillwater, after a horrific falling out, comes together to sing this song as one on their tour bus…  A classic music moment in the movies

Nirvana – “The Man Who Stole the World”I can’t hear any Nirvana without thinking about the fact that Kurt Cobain and I would be about the same age now if he hadn’t been such an asshole and killed himself… His life is tragic and in many ways pathetic and I have always had a soft spot for his messed up genius… Covering a David Bowie song is the last thing I expected of him but it works so damn well and almost comes across as a lament when sung by Kurt. Fitting. 

Arcade Fire – “Creature Comforts”This is a relatively new song from perhaps Canada’s greatest contribution to alternative rock… I don’t dig everything they do but I sure appreciate the experimentation, the intelligence and the wide spectrum of musicality they display… The opening lines of this song tear a hole in my heart, “Some boys hate themselves/Spend their lives resenting their fathers/Some girls hate their bodies/Stand in the mirror and wait for feedback/Saying God, make me famous/If you can’t just make it painless/Just make it painless”… Wow – Anyone who writes like that deserves a listen

The Beatles – “Come Together”As I’m on my homeward stretch, making my way down my street, the familiar Brit-blues-funk of this song carries me there… I have so many memories wrapped up in the Beatles it is hard to tell one from another but I do remember recorded myself and my college roommate singing over this track like a couple of idiots…

Music makes you stupid, makes you laugh, brings tears and thoughts, comforts and disturbs, peels back the layers of exhaustion to reveal the energy below you didn’t know was there. Music my Rock.

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 333: How Precious

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A couple of days ago I was cleaning out my work backpack, or as it could also be referred to, my Black Hole pack. Things disappear in it. I’m not sure what kind of physics are at play here. Perhaps deep down in my backpack the rules of physics just shut down… Perhaps there are items in there that end up in the Upside-down… That would be wicked cool. But the reality is that there are things that stay in the dark recesses of my backpack for a long, long time. Thankfully they are usually scraps of paper, old notes I’ve scribbled, maps to buried treasure, that sort of thing.

As I was removing the contents of my gravitational singularity (science and Star Trek geeks get that joke), I did come upon something a bit like buried treasure, the simple sketch I share with you above. I looked at it and memories came back of a bus ride, much like every other bus ride I’ve taken, except I was moved to draw something in ballpoint pen on a scrap of recycled note paper. It happened this way: We were stopped to drop off and pick up passengers along the route. As is usual, there were a number of people standing on the bus platform, invariably with that “waiting-with-a-group-of-strangers” look on their faces. For just a brief second I caught a glimpse of a young woman’s face out the window and, for some odd reason, I took that pen and drew a quick sketch of her. Then, for some other reason, I scribbled “How precious” under the portrait.

I’m not sure what frame of mind I was in that led to that. I can’t remember. But I have had these moments before, moments of profundity in a prosaic situation. That sounded really pretentious, sorry – I just meant moments that are profound in the middle of something everyday and mostly boring, like a commute home after work. Mostly these moments are centered on thoughts of the people around me, strangers going about their daily routine. I often catch a glimpse of someone and wonder about them – Are they happy? Are they loved? What secret battle are they fighting? Sometimes I even offer up a prayer for a person (silently, mind you). I really don’t know where this impulse comes from but my guess is that there is a soul-to-soul thing happening. I am acknowledging in a way that I see you, that is, the real you, and affirm your importance, your place, your connection to me as part of the human family.

That is where this simple sketch came from, I believe. I share it with you today in hopes that you realize it could be your face in the sketch, your face with the words “How precious” underneath, because that is what you are.

Part of why I have this blog is to communicate I see you to whoever ends up here, reading this far into something I’ve posted. You matter to me, even if I don’t know you or will never know you. Because you are unique, because we share so much more in common than we have differences, because the world is not the same without you.

How precious you are, worthy to be sketched, even if it is just in ballpoint pen on a scrap piece of paper.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 332: Memento Mori

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“Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.”  (“Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”) – From the Roman Catholic liturgy, based on Genesis 3:19, traditionally spoken on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

Yesterday I had a post in praise of the latest Marvel Comics Netflix series, The Punisher. There is a moment in the series when another character sees Frank Castle, the Punisher himself, spray painting the iconic skull image onto the front of his bullet proof vest. He says to Frank, “You know what that is? That’s a Memento Mori.

Nothing like a little Latin with your pop culture.

What is a Memento Mori exactly? Literally, a reminder of death. Of course, The Punisher wears it to let the bad guys know what’s coming for them. But in art history a Memento Mori was used not so much as a judgment upon others but as a reminder to oneself. Most often in the form of a skull or skeleton, these were works of art meant to lead the viewer to considering their own mortality, which in turn would lead to humility and  thankfulness to God. The concept of the Memento Mori goes a long way back in the history of Christianity and can be seen in many churches and cathedrals, monasteries and covents. It is a common motif in Western culture.

I came upon a blog called Funeral Zone that had this to say of these reminders of mortality: “Memento mori primarily had a moral and religious purpose: to remind its owner or viewer that the afterlife awaited, and to not be overtly attached to material pleasures, in light of the prospect of divine judgment.”

In our popular culture, skulls and skeletons are Halloween decorations or used to convey some kind of badass image or played up for comedy. It is interesting, however, that though we don’t consciously use them as reminders of mortality anymore, they’re still with us, almost impossible to ignore, popping up in many different places and forms.

Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to be reminded that we are all destined to die. We seem to be people driven to do whatever we can to never think about it, to worship at the altar of eternal youth and beauty instead. But wouldn’t we all be better off, more humble, more aware of the preciousness of each day, if we were more aware of how little time we each had on this earth?

I realized after I had looked into the history of the Memento Mori that I created one myself that now hangs in the TV room in my basement. It is a mosaic I made from craft foam after I saw a similar mosaic from the third century with a similar sentiment recently discovered in Turkey:

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If you want to read more about the history of the Memento Mori, check out the link to the article I’ve quoted above from Funeral Zone:

https://www.funeralzone.co.uk/blog/memento-mori