Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Kiss Me, Pretty Protoplasm

Yesterday was the 4th anniversary of my Dad’s passing. I wrote a letter to him in my journal, catching him up on the news—one grandchild pregnant, one engaged, one off to college, one with a new girlfriend, one celebrating her two-year anniversary in Buenos Aires and so on. Me in Michigan, where exactly half my lifetime ago, he helped me shave my beard on my 30th birthday. It was the only time he and my mom came to my in-laws cottage on Lake Michigan and the two families merged, but it was a memorable week. New York-born-and-bred, my Dad attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor just before the war, a chapter of his life I knew little about beyond a photo of him in front of one of the main buildings. We passed it again on that trip, but frankly, I don’t remember any more stories forthcoming.

In the book Corelli’s Mandolin, one of the characters talks about dealing with loss by “living on the departed one’s behalf.” That image has always stuck with me. Since those who are gone don’t have bodies and voices, we use our own to enjoy what they enjoyed, both to keep them alive in our memory and to keep us alive in theirs. An old Irish saying says something to the effect of “What’s wrong in this world can only be healed by those in the other world and what’s wrong in the other world can only be healed by those in this world.” This idea of partnership with the Ancestors is found in cultures worldwide and rings true for me far beyond mere anthropological curiosity. How often we feel the invisible helping hands guiding our destiny and whether we call them Angels, the Muse, the Spirits or Ancestors, their presence is palpable. Likewise, I often feel, as Bessie Jones notes in her autobiography For the Ancestors, that “when I’m singing the songs my grandfather used to sing, I feel him come around to listen. And I believe he be happy.”

And so yesterday I did a Crostic puzzle, listened to Beethoven and recited my Dad’s favorite poem. Had I been home, I would have played one of the piano pieces he composed. I always think of my father as an artistic soul waylaid by the 1950’s businessman culture. He had composed music, played some piano, organ and violin, painted many paintings, memorized some poems and wrote a few and tucked all of it away to be a responsible businessman who brought home the bacon to his two-child suburban New Jersey family.

When he retired, it would have been a perfect time to bring those old artistic leanings out of the closet, dust them off and enjoy them again. But he claimed that they had atrophied too far and despite my encouragement, never did paint or play or compose again. And yet, when I recorded a tape of me performing his compositions for one of his birthdays, he listened to it every single day for years and yet more often in his last six months. I believe it brought him a great deal of comfort.

At his memorial service, I read a poem by Rilke:

"Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot."  

I’m grateful that my father didn’t abandon his family in pursuit of art. And perhaps he set in motion the invitation for my sister and I to go out as “far out into the world” as we have. But still I would like to think that one can raise a family and keep one’s artistic soul alive and well-fed. At least keep playing music, painting, memorizing new poems, writing a poem or two, simply for the pleasure of it.

Back to that favorite poem he used to recite at a moment’s notice. It comes from an obscure novel titled Finnley Wren by Philip Wylie, who also authored a collection of essays titled Generation of Vipers. It is the perfect blend of poetry and science, which as a chemist, appealed to my Dad. You may have to look up some words, but mostly, read it out loud to enjoy both the music of the language and the humor and imagery.

And should you be so fortunate to have your parents still living, don’t forget to kiss them next time you see them. A lot.

Life is just a passing spasm,
            In an aggregate of cells;
Kiss me, pretty protoplasm,
While your osculation dwells.

Glucose-sweet, no enzyme action
            Or love-lytic can reduce,
            Our relations to a fraction
Of hereditary use.

Nuclear rejuvenation
Melts the auricle of stoic:
Love requires a balanced ration—
Let our food be holozoic;

Let us live with all our senses
While anabolism lets us—
Till—with metaplastic fences
Some katabolism gets us.

Till, potential strength, retreating,
Leaves us at extinction’s chasm:
And, since time is rather fleeting,
            Kiss me, pretty protoplasm.

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