Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Mother, the Universe, and a ukulele

My mother is dying. A day at a time, an episode at a time, she is shutting her systems down. Withdrawing. Preoccupying herself with the Big Riddle.

Those of her children who live close by oversee the details of her care. Nursing home. Hospice. Oxygen levels. The inexorable advance of the pneumonia. The menu for meals she will no longer eat. Her children on the scene are a tenuous tether to a world where she no longer wants to be. Those of us who live in other places hover and worry at a distance via cell phones, text messages and email.

She is Irish, and she was raised Roman Catholic, but she has become vehemently agnostic these past twenty years. She despises the rites, the priests and the church hierarchy.

“Let those pampered old men bear the children,” she has taken to saying. “Let’s see how fast their outlook changes then.”

She loathes the Church’s salvation story itself.

“It’s just a story,” the woman who schooled me in the Baltimore Catechism rants. “Something they made up to get through the dark months.”

Her blood pressure is low these days. My guess is that changing the topic to religion would fix that, but it’s probably best we don’t. The word is out among family and visitors. It’s tick-a-lock, regarding religion. Even the most devout visitors—people who usually tell sick people they are praying for them—drop their eyes and mumble they’ll keep her in their thoughts.

No matter how agnostic she is, that numinous aura that always shows up at the end of a life is beginning to hang in the air and color everything. Believers might say there are angels hovering around. This would cheese her off immensely, were she to hear it.

“No there are not,” she would respond if she heard them say it. “The damned angels are just part of the story too. The one made up by old men and imposed—no inflicted—on women…”

We’d be off to the races all over again.

Darn that nagging, numinous whatever-it-is. Spare her the faintest whiff of holiness, thank you very much. If the product were available, she would find the remote control that adjusts her hospital bed, elevate herself, and spray an aerosol can of, “Aura-B-Gone” into the air around her.

On the other hand, I seem to be especially aware of whatever-it-is that’s haloing everything these days. My mother is dying and the whole world is shimmering. I refuse to try to shoehorn it into any one religious tradition. Life is too big, too complex, and too short to waste time trying to make one set of beliefs fit all.

Instead, I rely on an abiding sense of awe for the Universe that created this world and my mother, and plunked her down in the middle of a big Irish family on the South Side of Chicago where, a few decades later, she gave birth to me.

Everything shimmers these days. Even the ukulele my children gave me for Christmas. It is a simple and happy little instrument. It makes me feel simple and happy to play it—even badly—even though my mother is dying.

As I play it, the ukulele provides a rhythmic, tonal rubric over which I would drape a melody, should I ever stumble across one. It establishes a basic, plinking, plunking, optimistic little framework for life, and I have been working to find simple songs for it.

The Internet is full of ukulele sites. The sites are full of songs I first heard on Sundays at our house after we moved out of the city, up into the suburbs. My grandmother would talk my grandfather into making the drive to spend the afternoon, and, often, other great aunts, great uncles and family friends would make the trek too.

They would arrive fresh from mass in their South Side parishes, bearing Sealtest Ice Cream Cake Rolls they’d bought at the local drugstore (a South Side cake roll would have melted on the way out). Back then, a cake roll seemed numinous in and of itself. There would be dinner and talk, then Sealtest Ice Cream Cake Roll, and then someone would suggest my grandmother play something on the piano.

She was a contemporary of Irving Berlin, and, like Berlin, her roots were in ragtime. She would play Maple Leaf Rag, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and a few other rags. Eventually, she would wander off, down four or five decades of Tin Pan Alley tunes. Sometimes one of her sisters or friends would uncase an accordion and take up the cause. Always, the others would gather around the piano and join in the singing.

In rummaging ukulele sites, I have found all those songs again. They shimmer with the spirits of the people gathered around the piano. They shimmer with the Universe too.

“We were rough and ready guys but oh how we could harmonize…”
go the words to an old song called ‘Heart Of My Heart.’ It was a favorite with the ice cream cake roll crowd, a song about singing a favorite old song.

Rough and ready? No. Good and gentle would be more apt. But oh, how they could harmonize. They’re harmonizing with the Universe still.

I stood at their gravesides. I watched a generation of priests sprinkle aspergillums of holy water on their caskets and pray for perpetual light to shine on them. If she were on top of her game, my mother the agnostic would tell those priests to stick their perpetual light where the sun doesn’t shine. She loathes anything maudlin. She despises the euphemisms and platitudes in which we wrap the cold hard fact of death.

I think, though, that she would appreciate—and maybe even come to embrace—the infinitely larger harmony that seems to resonate everywhere in the Universe—that seems to be the essence of the Universe itself.

The ukulele chord progression for the last few bars of “Heart Of My Heart,” is simple: E7, A7, D7, G. The words go, “I know a tear would glisten if once more I could listen to the gang that sang ‘Heart Of My Heart’.” Think I’ll go buy an ice cream cake roll, bring it home, have a big slice, and go to work on my harmonies.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Flying squirrels and the people who attract them

A friend of mine who lives on a small lake up north reports flying squirrels have discovered the bird feeder outside his living room windows. The squirrels are nocturnal, and I can imagine them gliding in—a squad of rodent paratroopers out there in the dark—their drop zone that pool of yellow light from the windows.

We found an old magazine article full of flying squirrel lore and little known facts about them the last time they showed up. But we’ve lost it now, and anything I told you about flying squirrels would be hearsay at best.

I have spent years observing the guy who owns the feeder, though. I consider myself an authority on the kind of human behavior it takes to attract flying squirrels.

You need what this guy calls, high appreciation—to be able to observe and take pleasure in nature’s small details. The wind in a white pine this time of year, for example. Or the way a coyote sneaks across the ice on the lake in the distance.

Content yourself with the small things and you will almost certainly acquire a contemplative frame of mind. With any luck, you will find yourself living in a stand of pine, ash, oak, maple, and ironwood a few miles outside of town.

And if you tend your feeders diligently, you may discover you have flying squirrels for neighbors—and that the neighbors don’t mind dropping in for a late evening snack, bringing an entirely new set of stuff to observe and appreciate.

High appreciation and simple observation can generate new questions too. Ever since the flying squirrels showed up, we’ve been going back and forth, wondering what a group of flying squirrels ought to be called. Is it a, squadron? A circus? Lately, I’ve been calling it an, “O’Hare of flying squirrels.”

We live in complex, noisy times. Often, Life seems to drive back and forth outside the house with the subwoofers thumping all night.

And it’s when Life is at its fractious, most distracting worst that you come to appreciate little things the most. Like a fire ticking and flickering in a north woods wood burner and flying squirrels gliding down to feed in the snow.