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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

After writing my last post, I am still wondering what exactly I do believe in regards to death and the afterlife.  As I said, I do not believe it is a rational matter, or at least I think that reason will not lead me to a satisfactory answer.  Faith can provide an answer that will relief the burden of a probable eternal oblivion, yet I do not accept the string of unreasonable believes that come with it.

I was raised Roman Catholic, but I do not practice my religion.  We go to mass once a year at Easter, not because of faith, but because of habit and also as a way to externally express, at least once a year, gratitude at our blessings.  I am sure there is a lot of hypocrisy and laziness in my view of God and religion.  And I accept that:  I believe only in what makes me feel better and suits my philosophy of life.  “Piety is a reflex of a fearful man”, as stated by Sebastian Faulks in Birdsong, my next book post.

I lost very few dear people: one cousin, a trusted and faithful family assistant, and my maternal grandparents.  My cousin Alberto, “El Gordo”, died when he was 19 years old, and I was 17 and my brother Diego was 15.  Diego and Gordo were very close, like brothers.  He died in a freak accident involving a truck and a container.  He died in Diego’s arms on the side of a country road.  He was the youngest of 5, the only boy.  His wake took place at our house in El Rodeo, on a very cold and rainy night.  As we kept vigil over his body,  I remember the open casket,  his white waxy face, the cotton plugs in his ears and nose.  I remember the stoic silence of my uncle, his detached attitude, his blank stare.  He was buried in our family cemetery in El Rodeo, next to his mum.

Segundo, our dear friend and servant, died while I was in Canada.  He worked for my paternal grandfather, then for my uncle, then for my dad and with us.  He taught us how to ride horses, and we saw him everyday for the first 9 years of my life.  He died peacefully in his sleep.  Even today, I think of him as alive and content, riding his horse and taking care of El Rodeo, with his easy smile and wise counsel.  Distance is indeed a blessing in this situation.  My brother named his only son after him:  Colton Segundo.

When my grandparents died, I was abroad, far away from my family and from the loss.  I was in Amsterdam when my grandfather passed away after a long and painful battle with skin cancer.  I did not return for the wake and burial.  I returned a few days after, and his death seemed very surreal.    My grandmother passed away a few years later, and by then I was in Vancouver.  She died after a very short battle with pneumonia.  My mother encouraged me not to fly home since I would not be able to attend the wake and funeral on time.  A couple of weeks later, I found out I was pregnant with my oldest daughter.  In both cases, I had not seen my grandparents for a few months, and their passing seemed a mere temporary departure, a longer yet undramatic separation.

When my daughter C was eight months old, we went to Tucuman so that my parents could meet her.  It was my first time back since loosing my grandmother.  A few days after our arrival, my parents, my daughter and I went to visit my grandparents.  It was a wonderful journey to “The Garden of Memories”, a green and hilly cemetery just outside the city.  We parked, and my mum greeted my grandparents.  It was a very simple yet poignant gesture that removed the sadness and allowed a familiarity and tranquility to settle in.  I introduced my daughter to them, and it felt very natural.  We placed a blanket on the grass, we put C on it, and we proceeded to garden the area.  We cut some dead flowers, trimmed a recently planted tree that provided a wonderful shady area, and we discussed the advance of the ants on the grass.  We prayed for a few minutes.  Finally, we sat down blissfully, and enjoyed the beautiful spring breeze,  feeling the quiet and loving presence of the ones that were not physically with us anymore. We said our goodbyes and left for the day, the same way we used to do when they lived ten block away from our house.  There was no drama, there were a few tears, there was laughter, there was love.  It was an afterlife.

Cemeteries are a sort of afterlife.  When we need to communicate and connect with our dead loved ones, we go to their last resting place.  There is a sense of completion, finality, full circle.  It is the place where we mourn, but also the place where we celebrate that precious life that is no more.  It is in that continuity of love and memory where their lives remain and prolong, where the two worlds of the living and the dead join and where absence and silence are companionship and comfort.  I say this from my humble experience.

My father-in-law Vicente is a very interesting fellow.  He is Mexican, and he is rich in culinary anecdotes and a  fantastic cook.  He had a near-death experience when he underwent  heart surgery, and he likes to tell insightful stories.

While we were having a delicious leftover lunch, he told us about a bizarre dream he had the night before.  A kind voice was telling him that when you die,  you are still able to communicate with the living, catching up on what is happening in both worlds, the world of the living and the world of the dead.  In the dream, he rejoiced in anticipation at meeting his beloved mother, his father, his brother.  Suddenly, an unknown voice said to be realistic, and to assume the truth of what death means:  utter silence, darkness, loneliness, eternal unconsciousness.  Vicente woke up sad, wondering why this second voice had to ruin a wonderful vision of the afterlife.

My mother-in-law, a devout catholic, thought that the first voice was the voice of God, and the second one the voice of the Devil, trying to confuse him away from the truth.

This conversation haunted me through my Christmas holiday.  I remembered how the Egyptians used to mummify their dead to preserve them for the Afterlife;  how if you followed the proper rites, spells and prayers, your heart would  be judged in the Hall of Two Truth for its justice , and then you would either be sent to the World of the Dead, or be devoured  by the demon Ammut, the Dead-Swallower.

The Greek and the Romans believed in the Underworld, the place where the souls live after death; the Underworld was ruled by the god Hades.  The god Hermes leads the souls to the Styx river, the one that separates life from death.  Charon the ferryman  ferries the souls across the river, and they are judged, and sent to the place they deserve: the Elysium fields, a happy, green and sunny place; the Asphodel fields, a place where ordinary and indifferent souls merely exist;  and Tartarus, the place where the souls of sinners are tormented and punished.

I remember reading Vergil’s Aeneid.  Aeneas, the hero of the story and the founder of Rome, seeks his father, who then acts as a guide to the Underworld.  How many possibilities!  There are especial places for particular sins, injustices, brutalities…The souls living in the Underworld drink from the river of Forgetfulness to forget their lives and prepare to move on.

I was raised a Roman Catholic,  and from a very young age I understood the consequences of my actions in the afterlife:  if you are a bad person, you will go to Hell, the most horrific place possible, where you will suffer eternal pain, fear, regret.  Heaven and Hell were as real as Disneyland.  You live in this world, but your heart waits in anticipation at the communion with God for all eternity.

The notion of Afterlife is a consequence of two feelings:  a desire to prolong existence, and the need to reunite with our loved ones.  Death defines life as much as life itself, and the idea of the end of our lives is very difficult to accept.  We do not know how death feels, if we will even feel anything.  Death may be a portal to something else, death may just be the end of it all.  That uncertainty weights heavily on our hearts and souls.  We NEED to believe in something in order to lift that oppression.  A belief in an afterlife not only  removes the fear of the unknown, it adds extra value to life itself, it gives us something to strive for.  Death and the afterlife are neither  religious nor  rational matters:  it is an emotional matter, a question of the heart.

Recently, I woke up in the middle of the night with a very simple realisation:  Vicente had found the essence of the subject of death.  Whether we live eternally in heaven or hell, what matters is the reunion with our loved ones.  I do not care very much to what happens to my soul in eternity, I care about remaining in contact with my loved ones.  I can accept the silence and loneliness of not existence.  Yet, if I am to live eternally in the Afterlife, I want to share that eternity with the ones I loved in life.  No religion, no reason, just a question of the heart.

Last Days, by Gus Van Sant

Still following the career of Michael Pitt, I came across this fantastic film, Last Days.  It will not be everybody’s cup pf cake.  It is quiet, disturbing in its simplicity.  The film is bleak, sad, tragic.  Just like the character’s life.

The film focus on the last days of Kurt Cobain.  In it, the main character, Blake, a Kurt Cobain-like person,  is all by himself with his soul and mind, in a beautiful yet decadent mansion somewhere in Washington State.  There are people around him, yet he is alone, isolated, withdrawn, vulnerable.

The film is full of contrast and irony.  There is a stark contrast between the quietness and peacefulness of nature surrounding him, and the evident turmoil within his soul.  Nature is beautiful and whole, the house is falling apart and disappearing.  There are many around him, yet he is very alone.

Blake is in a bubble of silence and loneliness, he is in his own world, who knows what is in his mind but nothingness.  Those around him are  the leeches of celebrity life, the bloodsuckers who, being  young, are  selfish and vain.  I hated them.  And I loved him.  I wanted to protect him, to nourish him, to console him.  He is like a child, going from one thing to the other, without the sophistication of maturity and confidence.  His every action is poignant, from cooking up his noodles to his changing his clothes.

He is, before he dies, a ghost cruising the woods and the house, an invisible being, ignored and avoided,  nothingness.  It breaks your heart a million times.

I remember the day that Kurt Cobain died.  I was in Argentina, and I felt sad, like all of us.  I was astonished: how can someone who has it “all” kill himself?  I did not know all the details of his last days, the raging storms that rocked his soul for years, his addictions, his disconnection to the world and its people.  His rupture with his creative fire was taking a toil both in body and mind.   Soon after moving to Vancouver in June 1994, I read a great article in Details magazine, and I was devastated by it.  He came across as such a vulnerable and soft human being, pulled by the strings of fame and success.  The ever presence of physical pain haunts his every day life, and I guess it affected his optimistic view of life.  I felt sad for him.  I remember one detail very clearly: his favourite book  Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, a book that I enjoyed a lot too.  I see all the parallels between him and the main character in the book.  Unconventional odd people are always misinterpreted by mainstream society, and it is painful and lonely.  And if you don’t love yourself, why would people love you?

Now, watching this amazing film, I relieved all these feelings of sadness and compassion towards this unfortunate person.  The silence of the film, the uneventful succession of days, the loneliness, the indifference, the nothingness are very powerful and impressed me to tears.

On our way down to Los Angeles, we drove through Seattle and Olympia and the rest of the area where the story takes place.  I thought about him most of the trip.  Hopefully he found some solace somewhere.

On my last blog I talked about youth and its curiosity and creativity.  This film made me ponder upon another aspect of youth: insecurity and selfishness.  When we are young, we want to conquer the world with our hearts, souls and bodies, yet we do not know ourself well enough to do it well.  Youth is the home of loneliness and sadness, both things being part of finding your way in the world.

There are two songs in the film that are at the heart of the story.  One of them, in my mind, represent his turmoil, his raging storm.   The other one represents his sadness and loneliness.  Michael Pitt sings and plays them beautifully.  The  final tale of the film is that ofdeath, and the sentiment and emotion behind it are overwhelming.  R.I.P. Kurt Cobain.

I have been following the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and I am really impressed by the fantastic cast of actors, the great script, the intricate and thorough story lines, the magnificent sets and costumes, and specially the powerful characters.  My favourite character is Jimmy Darmody, played by the amazing Michael Pitt.  After googling Pitts’s career, I came upon this amazing film, The Dreamers.

I am still in awe…I absolutely love this film! We are talking Cinema, not movies.

Simple yet great premise: young American boy, living and studying in Paris in late 1960, meets attractive and intelligent twin brother and sister at cinema club, and they start a month-long relationship full of passion, discovery, idealistic conviction and complicated love.

The film has explicit sex and nudity, and it did not bother me at all, since those two elements bring you closer to the characters and to what is going on.  The characters are young and intelligent, and they engage in passionate intellectual activities and they discover the pleasures of the body.

What  times!  The student rebellion is bubbling, and the climax is about to be reached…These three young people debate and dialogue their way, talking about films, books, ideas, ideals.  Socrates et al, like it used to be.  Some superb debates on Vietnam war, on parents, on film and cultural icons.

There is the ghost of incest floating around, tempting, tantalising, seducing…It did not repel me, like Cement Garden did.  In this film, it is love, fraternal love, twin love, to its extreme.

Paris, the city of lights, the city of love.  There is an atmosphere of hedonism, liberation from the bonds of convention and propriety, exploration of the mind and the body.

The siblings depict a very Parisian family, with the intellectual father, the handsome mother, and the rebellious children.  There is the decadent apartment, the beautiful old furniture, the old ways collapsing under the force of change brought about by the youth, the youth that detests the conventional ways and want to reform society.

That is the ultimate essence of the film:  youth.  Youth in trying to change the status quo, youth in discovering your body and its boundless possibilities, youth in the curiosity of the mind, the creativity of the spirit…It is the genius of youth, the raw and pure emotion of pushing the boundaries with imagination and intelligence.

This film made me think of my dear friend T’s husband.  I get it.  conversation, music, philosophical debate, good food and wine:  it a way for us to maintain that pure and creative spirit of youth, not because we want to feel younger or look younger, but because we appreciate the uniqueness of youth as a state of mind.

An ode to the art of cinema, please watch it if you can!

Last summer, at the best garage sale of the season, on the corner of Victoria and 4th Ave, I found this wonderful book.  I had never heard of Anita Shreve before, but I loved the title, and the cover was very compelling.

The story is about a photographer, Jean, who is sent to the Isles of Shoals to photograph the place where some sensational murders took place in 1873:  two women were brutally  killed, while one woman survived by hidden in a cave.  Turning the assignment into a tense family trip, Jean  arrives to the isles with her husband, their  young daughter, her brother-in-law and his latest girlfriend on his sailboat.  Two storylines are followed: the one from the past, told from the survivor’s point of view, Maren Christensen; the other one from the present, related by Jean.  Through insights into both Jean’s and Maren’s thoughts, the story knits a web of mystery, passion, resentment, betrayal, loss.

The stories are tragic because they are both  predictable and irreversible.  Both protagonists march into a doomed outcome, filled with misconceptions and delusions.  Maren and Jean have very different lives and personalities, yet they share a common atmosphere of distrust and unhappiness.  The author unravels all the complexities of this atmosphere switching  genially from past to present.  Anita Shreve  mixed the stories very well, and the issues facing both women are presented with passion.

One of the most mystifying elements of the story is the power of the desolated landscape of the Isles of Shoals.  The bareness and inhospitality of the isles affects the behaviour of both  inhabitants and visitors alike:  pushed to the edge of reason, one cannot help but wonder how tranquility and happiness can be attained amidst such harshness and indifference of nature.  Raging waters, howling winds, foul weather, utter isolation and loneliness.  It is the perfect setting for the storming emotions of both Maren and Jean.

I wanted to visit this place, and imagine how the events took place.  After finishing the book, I found out that Kathryn Bigelow directed the film version of the book.  The film was haunting, with fantastic acting by a great cast.  I liked the book better than the film, though…

An interesting detail: the murders are not fictional.  Shreve found out about them on a holiday to Smuttynose, Isles of Shoals in the 70’s.  In my mind, this makes the book still more captivating.

I did not regret my bargain!  This author is talented at balancing mystery, drama, romance and suffering.  I couldn’t put the book down!  I am reading another one of her books, The Pilot’s Wife, regarded to be her best work.  I am a few chapters into it, and again I see her talent at uncovering a story, layer by layer, to reach the core of the matter.

Funny enough, while musing about what to write about this book, I came upon an interview with Anita Shreve on this past Saturday’s edition of the Globe and Mail.  The first thing that caught my eye was the title of the article: ‘You don’t sit waiting for the muse to come’.  She was talking directly to me!  I found out that Shreve is a very prolific author who sits down every day at her desk to work on a book.  She is not only talented, but she is also dedicated and disciplined.  Bravo!

Last week, the Little Guy and I went to the public library to gather more Spider Man books.  LG is suffering from a moderate to extreme obsession with the cute web-head, and I love feeding into it.  Also, my oldest daughter C had provided me with an extensive list of books that she needed in order to complete the many series she is reading:  Guardians of Ga’hoole, Keys to the Kingdom, and 39 Clues.  We were able to find many Spidey books, but we did not find books for C.  Saddened, I looked around for other options that may cheer her up, and also interest the rest of the clan.  I was quite impressed with the Renfrew Library branch: not only it is very bright and spacious, it has a wonderful selection of  children books, many new books  that look straight out of the book store!  I love going to the library with the excuse of getting books for the kids.  Going to the library is the closest experience to research that I have in my present life! Research was always the favourite part of my school life: all those endless hours hunting down the perfect books to support  my ideas…I love to introduce my children to the topics that fascinated me both as a child and as an adult.  It is very gratifying to see the seeds of curiosity grow into a real interest in their young minds.  We signed out London, From Roman Capital to Olympic City, Eyewitness Book on Flags, The Usbourne Official Pharaoh’s Handbook, Usborne See Inside Ancient Rome, and  Heroine of the Titanic, the Real Unsinkable Molly Brown.

The books were a great success.  While L and O were looking at the Roman book,  LG was reenacting scenes from his Spider Man book, and C was learning how to be a cool Pharaoh, I started to read the Molly Brown story.  She was quite an extraordinary woman.  Born to humble Irish parents, she dreamt of marrying a rich man who would be able to provide comfort to her and especially to her parents.  She married J.J. Brown, who was as poor as her,  for love;  J.J. Brown had the good fortune of having a good business mind and they became rich.  Since her marriage, she was committed to women’ s rights and to improving their lives through education.  She was fluent in French, German and Russian.  After 23 years of marriage, they separated, and she received a generous settlement that allowed her to travel around the world and help people in need.  She was on board the Titanic on her way back home from a journey to Egypt and France.  Not only was she of great assistance and courage during the tragedy, but after it she remained engaged in assisting the surviving women and children of lesser means.  What a lady!

However, what startled me was the fatalistic chain of event that resulted in the tragedy.  On my last blog, I mused about fate, fatalism and choice.  These notions remained with me all week-long.  I read that we, human beings, are fatalistic in regards to the past; we can appreciate the unstoppable and unquestionable power of fate  in the light of past actions and events.  Yet, we have  more difficulty accepting the same in regards to the future.  The future is the realm of possibility, of open endings, of free will.  Philosophers of Fatalism believe that the notion of free will is rooted in our pride and sense of self-importance.   We may have a choice, but the outcome is determined already, regardless of the choices we had.

Hybris is a Greek word that translates into arrogance.  It is excessive pride and over confidence;  it is the feeling of being entitled to everything, regardless of others’ wishes and rights; it is the defiance of our own limits, defiance of our own mortality, imperfection, limitation.  The arrogance of humanity comes from considering itself on top of the food chain, from believing that we are the highest beings in the universe.  It is about the self-importance of the individual.  This notion of Hybris is present in all forms of literature.  The epic poem The Iliad talks about hybris as the hero’s refusal to accept his own’s mortality.  In Greek tragedy, it is the hero’s challenge to the authority and rules of both gods and  humans.  It is Icarus trying to fly as hight as the sun.  In the Bible, it is Lucifer’s trying to build his throne higher than the clouds.

The Titanic surpassed any other vessel in luxury and extravagance.  It was designed to be the largest ship to ever take to the seas.   She was built with the most advanced technologies and by the most renowned engineers.  No expense was spared.    Titanic’s opulence and superior mechanical design attracted many wealthy passengers who switched their tickets from other vessels.  She was the jewel of her generation.  Yet, in her luxury and superiority, she lacked enough lifeboats to accommodate all her passengers.

The captain of the Titanic, Edward Smith, was on his last trip before retirement.  In order to culminate his great career at sea on a very high note, he was hoping  to break the speed record for crossing the Atlantic.    He received several reports warning him of iceberg sightings by other vessels.  Yet, the night of the accident, not only he did not slow down the vessel, he did not post extra crew members to be on the look out.   Was he blinded by pride?

Crashing against the iceberg, filling up with water, with freezing temperatures, in the dark of the moonless night, the lifeboats half full, mostly with women and children, the despair, the fear, the bewilderment, the sinking of the majestic floating palace, the unforgettable moment of loss…

Thinking of the Titanic’s tragedy, my mind swirls with notions of hybris, destiny, choices, egos, unrelenting fate, utter catastrophe.  I did not consider these matters when I was a child.  As a child, I was attracted to the imagery of the Titanic: the sinking boat, the thousands of people drowning in the freezing waters, the stupefied survivors, the final swirled of water as “the sea opened up and the surface foamed like giant arms that spread around the ship”.  How tragic, how fatidic, how eerie.  My daughter C looked at these pictures and told me she had goosebumps.  She understands.

I came upon this article a few days ago while reading the BBC headlines.  The twisted paths of fate:  one life ends, a new one  begins.