BLIGHT - a meditation
Waves of grief always begin with frequency and intensity. Both diminish over time, though smaller, more subtle waves recur, indefinitely.
When a celebrity dies it isn’t quite the same, at least not for those of us outside that celebrity’s inner circle (as someone not close to anyone famous, I can only imagine the surrealism of mixing private with public grief). Still, many who never knew the deceased react strongly, while others observe with detached puzzlement: Why are you upset about the death of someone you didn’t know? Illogical; no sensible explanation for why hordes of people wave candles in the air outside the Dakota Apartments or Graceland or the Apollo Theatre, heap flowers outside Buckingham Palace, glue themselves to television footage, post blips on social networking sites mourning the passing of strangers.
Amidst all the madness, there are always those who post something (or, back before we posted things, those who said something) to remind us that the deceased individual wasn’t perfect, in some cases deeply flawed, perhaps so flawed that the current mass grieving should be unwarranted; that the media coverage is excessive and ridiculous and should be more focused on something more significant, like impending nuclear warfare; that the family of the subject celebrity should be left alone. Someone will note the irony of paparazzi and press, considering that the death itself may have been at least partially triggered by the stress of fame, paparazzi, and our toxic cult of celebrity. We build them up to tear them down. In the course of achieving fortune and fame, many celebrities pay a price, often the ultimate price, sacrificial lambs to a society that pays lip service to equality yet demands that someone play the part of royalty.
I never disagree with anyone who points all this out. Mourning the deaths of celebrities we’ve never met is illogical, and celebrities, like all humans, are rarely perfect; if anything, limitless wealth, power, and face recognition tend to foster an excessiveness that surges beyond the realm of eccentric and into the realm of downright scary.
Whenever a celebrity dies, especially one with a bizarre life story, I become slightly eccentric myself, morphing into two (or more) people. My inner intellectual, left-brained and well versed in the analysis of cultural discourse, grouses about the media, the shallow values of pop culture, the dark side of fame, the cloud of denial in which so many celebrities seem to be enshrouded. Yet another self feels unable to pull away from the television coverage. My inner intellectual may deplore the cheap exploitation of celebrity death, but she does so while flipping between cable news channels (no patience for commercials), or while scanning radio stations in search of one that’s playing all Michael Jackson all the time, or while downloading a copy of the Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster as a favor to my husband (knowing he is nostalgic for his own decades-old fantasy life). Isn’t this a sorry spectacle, I muse, knowing full well that I myself am part of that spectacle and that really, this is not the same as losing too many dear friends, not to mention my own mother and father and along with them, the innocence of pre-orphanhood.
Or maybe it is not so different. It is not the celebrity I have lost—someone I never had to begin with. What I have lost is one of my prior selves. That prior self is already long gone, but the celebrity death reminds me of what I had not wanted to admit. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins knew this way back in the nineteenth century when he gave voice to the sadness of little Margaret, distraught as she watches the leaves falling yet feels unable to put into words the “why” of her sorrow; and the adult beside her, who observes and understands.
The self so easily sucked into the media hype also understands. For all the excess and clichés, the crassness of pop culture, the dark side of fame—all of which seemed to culminate in the apex of Michael Jackson—what I remembered on the day he died (Farrah Fawcett’s death echoing like a grace note in the background) was music that catapulted me on a backward journey, not through Michael’s life nor through Farrah’s but through my own.
As a child, I woke on Saturday mornings and rushed into the living room to watch the Jackson Five cartoon on ABC, fighting with my little brother while inhaling the aroma of Swedish pancakes and bacon that wafted from our kitchen. I remember lying in bed at night during early puberty, listening to a young Michael Jackson (only a couple years older than me) through the transistor radio I’d gotten for Christmas the year I was ten, crooning “You and I must make a pact, we must bring salvation back,” yearning for something that I couldn’t put into words, sensing that childhood would soon be past, that everything was about to change. I remember buying my first curling iron at Fred Meyer and insisting that my mother purchase a hand-held blow dryer so that I could try, valiantly, to get my hair (parted in the middle, of course) to flip back like Farrah’s.
Mom, on the other hand, dried her hair while working on crossword puzzles, sitting at the kitchen table wearing an air-filled bonnet connected by corrugated hose to a gigantic machine esconced in its own suitcase. My mother’s generation of women never dreamed of flipping back their hair at the sides; they just needed to dry out the beehive. I remember turning nineteen and crossing the border three hours north to spend weekends in Vancouver, British Columbia, where I could legally drink and dance to “Off the wall” and “Gotta be starting something,” even though back home—despite being already married—I was still underage.
In 1982 I finally turned twenty-one, and my husband and I began frequenting the bars and nightclubs of Seattle. That year the Thriller album was released—everywhere. Everybody we knew had the album, and it was an album, a vinyl disc that we dropped onto turntables and recorded onto cassette tapes. We thought we were on the cutting edge of technology when we figured out how to record bootleg cassette tapes off our own records, and we made multiple copies so we’d have backups when the first one jammed, since every so often ejecting a cassette would leave you entangled in thin strands of film.
Thriller wasn’t the first time “everyone” had an album; the first album I bought because “everybody” had it was Elton John’s Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, followed by Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Billy Joel’s The Stranger, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. (Older friends tell me it was the same way with Sergeant Pepper.) Still, with Thriller, something seemed different. Average albums contained a couple of big hits and a bunch of filler; phenomenal albums contained more than two hits and a series of excellent songs that didn’t make airplay but generated cult followings. With Thriller, nearly every song played on Casey Kasem’s Top Ten and at clubs and discos. It wasn’t just that every song was good—that had always been what distinguished excellent from average—but every song popular, that was new.
My husband and I were on the edge in those days, the first couple in our high school clique to get married, first to live in our own place, first to get cable TV and movies in our own living room sans commercials, which made ours the best party house. Then came MTV, and at first none one knew what to make of it. The Thriller video, with its unsurpassed choreography, made MTV seem like art, at least occasionally. A couple of years later we recorded that video on our first VCR, a contraption that cost eight hundred bucks and spanned the same area as our coffee table. Once again we made backup copies because the VHS tape would jam, with strips of film either flying through our living room or becoming fatally entwined in VCR heads. The march of technology has not always been in perfect step.
Still, I was amazed to realize that the wild predictions of my father, an avionics engineer and devotee of Popular Electronics and Isaac Asimov, had come true. During childhood my parents, devout Christians, had insisted that we attend church not only on Sunday mornings but on Sunday nights as well, and my brother and I always pouted about missing The Wonderful World of Disney. “Someday,” Dad predicted, “we will all be able to buy machines that attach to our televisions, and you’ll be able to record TV shows while you are out and watch them at home later, on your own schedule.”
“No way,” my brother and I would say, rolling our eyes. After all, this was the same man who sought to solve Seattle’s increasing traffic problems by attempting to invent an affordable personal helicopter, an idea my mother airily dismissed: “That just moves the traffic problem into the air, and if the personal helicopters crash, what happens to people then?” Still, Dad insisted on his flights of fancy: Someday, he said, people will no longer talk on telephones but through computers; someday the postal service will become obsolete as people send each other computer messages instead of letters; someday we will be able to see each other’s faces as we do all this; someday everyone will have a telephone in their car; someday cassette tapes will disappear, as scientists learn how to store information on tiny magnetic chips. Our friends (and Mom) used to say Dad was crazy.
Of course Dad was vindicated, though he didn’t live long enough to see it. Dad died of brain cancer in 1993, just months after we moved to another city, where I noticed more and more people carrying cell phones. It seemed silly then to think one should need—or want—a telephone available at all times (“What if you don’t want to be found all the time?” I often mused aloud). By then most everybody I knew owned a CD player and had phased out vinyl and cassettes, though we still recorded our TV shows on VHS—Betamax having already lived the same short lifespan of the eight-track tape.
Dad had lived long enough to see that particular prediction come true, but not most of the rest. The year after he died, I got my first email account on Compuserve. A somewhat early adopter, I’d had a PC since 1990, with a 500-megabyte hard drive and a full megabyte of RAM, outfitted with an external modem attached by nine-pin cables. Back in the 1980s, I thought we’d reached the pinnacle of communication technology when I used a steamer-trunk sized modem to transmit data from a remote location, and I’d assumed things couldn’t get any smaller when floppy disks shrunk to three and a half inches, much easier to manage than the eighteen-inches-around, three-inches-thick Frisbees that my boss had rolled around the office in 1984. People who knew Dad tell me that it’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to see the Internet. An immigrant to America from India via England and Canada, he hailed from a scattered and shattered diasporic post-colonial family. Keeping in touch had been difficult, and Dad left this earth just as it was about to become easier.
As my father lay dying, my world gradually contracted, becoming small, smaller, smallest, until all that mattered was contained within the tiny space of four walls. Time slowed to an agonizingly languid pace; the night it finally happened, time froze. Dad died at a hospice ward at six in the evening, and when we returned to my parents’ house, we discovered that the cuckoo clock I’d brought home from Germany as a gift for my parents had also stopped ticking at six.
Soon Mom also stopped ticking, degenerating into dementia, then paralysis. Mom followed Dad a couple of years later, breathing her last on a June afternoon in 1995. Again time compressed; again my world contracted. This time I was angry: My parents were in their early sixties, I was still in my early thirties. This wasn’t supposed to happen yet.
Five years later I would discover that the slowing of time and contraction of space accompany life at both ends of the spectrum. As do waves. The waves of labor move in an opposing trajectory to the waves of grief, beginning as tiny flutters, well-spaced, gradually increasing in intensity and frequency until they become nearly unbearable, just at the moment new life comes forth. Eight years after the physical labor accompanying our son’s birth, we adopted our daughter and discovered that the waves of labor are not purely physical. Once again, waves surged as time slowed, space compressed, and it felt jarring when I finally returned to the wide open space of the world.
Our own mortality, life’s fragility, the pain of creation and transmutation, time’s mutability—who wants to go through life aware of all that? Nowadays, we don’t have to. TV, movies, music, technology—all of this allows us to shut out memories of painful waves, distract ourselves, pretend we’re not really going there, pretend we’re not really all in this life together.
But then, like the double edge of fame that haunts those who provide us with distractions, technology and media fold back in on themselves. The entertainment we use to distract, to forget that time must pass, that everything must change, now becomes the very thing that most reminds us of all that. Endless memories are evoked by one song, one picture. Walter Cronkite dies and once again my parents are watching him deliver the news, while they play Scrabble in our oversized living room with its avocado-green wall-to-wall carpeting. Someone says “Elvis” and I’m once again careening up and down the steep hills of Seattle on a hot summer afternoon in my father’s mammoth 1977 Buick, thanks to my two-week old first driver’s license, when the announcement comes over the radio. Someone mentions John Lennon and I remember the breaking news that night he was shot, sitting in the living room of our newlywed rental house with its orange shag carpet. (It was a cheap rental situated next to a dope dealer in a densely wooded area near Lake Washington; we decided to move after the dealer and two disgruntled customers exchanged gunfire in our front yard at two in the morning.) In that same rental house I awoke at four a.m. to watch Charles and Diana’s royal wedding, doomed, though we didn’t know it at the time and, perhaps, neither did they.
No matter how bizarre the celebrity or the fan reaction, no matter how overblown and ridiculous the media coverage, how strong and even perhaps justified the backlash, Gerard Manley Hopkins knew all along, back in Victorian times with technology in its infancy, what we try to use the noise of the twenty-first century to forget: “It is the blight we are all born for.”
It is always ourselves we mourn for.
Spring and Fall (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.