Monday, June 7, 2010

The Choreographer of Life

“............The doctor said,
“There are things we can do which might give you time,
but we cannot cure you.” My father said,  
“Thank you.” And he sat, motionless, alone,  
with the dignity of a foreign leader.”

- Sharon Olds

When my father received the final message, this was what he had left to fight for - dignity.

I have shipped the oars, he said.

It was we who were not prepared to let him go.

Erin of “the tiny leaf” had me wondering. Do we own our bodies? Do we own our lives? Why are we so afraid of dying?

I have no answer but asking new questions. How can we not fear the unknown? It is only natural, like the naturalness of dying. Which is not natural at all. When my father died, I was angry. At life. At death. At him. At myself. But life is generous, it grants a multitude of perspectives. Little by little I grew into a new one like a dandelion forcing its way through tarmac.

Do we own our bodies, do we own our lives?

He will not leave till we give him the permission, I said. It was only hours before he died. He held on, held on, till the time had come. And we said, you may go now.

Or perhaps it wasn’t like that at all.

I was not present when my father left. Yet I had so wanted to be there.

As life, imagination is generous, It offered me a chance to go back.

There was a bird, there were wings flapping. They lifted off from my father´s head. As they did, the wings transformed into a pair of hands, waiving. The flapping and the waiving, the flapping and the waiving, I couldn’t see which was which. But as I bid farewell to a pair of wings, of hands waiving, I noticed the silence. The flapping of the wings. And the silence.

Do we own our bodies? Do we own our lives?

I have no idea. All I hear is a pair of wings flapping.
And then there is silence.

Sharon Olds, “His Stillness” from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002. 

Photos © Grete S. Kempton


  1. I am going to think about this Grete before I respond. It may take a while but I will return. It's not that I can't find things to say about this but that I have far too much! xx Jos

  2. Dear Grete,

    It was such a lovely thing to read your thoughts about my work, and it was even more wonderful that you came with a gift of pure knowledge. Ballad of East and West, indeed, it's a poem that has changed many perspectives.

    Now, as I read your words about life and death, the only word that comes to mind is 'acceptance'. Losing someone close to our heart is pure agony, but it's also a self-nourishing lesson of life. It leads to many questions that are left unanswered and wisdom that becomes shattered, but at the end we learn to accept that it is just the natural roll of life. I know I have.

    I found that memories and faith are the most powerful amulets. Combined together, they have seen me through a number of losses of loved ones and as time goes by their existence in my mind becomes stronger. Sometimes as if they never left.

    Do we own our bodies? Do we own our lives? Those are questions with a million different answers, all depending on the countless walks of life that exist in this world. To me personally, they lead to a larger question of the greater power, which I strongly believe in.

    Thank you, Grete, for writing this mind stimulating post. It's so satisfying to find someone who wanders and ponders into the depths of life.

  3. I see something of myself in your struggle. I hope that is not too presumptuous. Right here, Grete, I think, this might be the most telling line: "How can we not fear the unknown? It is only natural, like the naturalness of dying. Which is not natural at all." And then Amalia, who claims: "but at the end we learn to accept that it is just the natural roll of life." Two women, two views. And yet, if we look to nature itself, death is so natural, and yet we struggle against it in our heart, as though that might affect it. I do this, Grete, have done it all of my life. My father died when I was very young. My struggle against death was to try to bring it on at my own hand after that. I killed fish and frogs and just about anything of water. I never realized it until last year when a friend pointed it out, you know, you were trying to imprint on that which killed your father. He drowned. And so I spent a great deal of time sharpening my stone against death. But then as a young mother, my pendulum swung, and I feared it full out, railed against it, cried upon it, begged it to not come. And mostly it has only been around the periphery of my life, but it does come closer. And so I can neither control it, or reject it. It is in fact, natural. And so instead, I hope that now I am actually doing in my heart what I feel that I am doing in my head, allowing it to be book ends to life, granting life the poignancy and fleeting temporalness that it deserves.

    That is not to say that I do not absolutely love your honesty and bravery in feeling, in looking, in writing. I believe you are a beautiful soul on an incredible life's journey. I'm glad to pay witness to you here in this tiny window that I know you grow exponentially beyond. And I am sad for the loss of your father. At any age, it is too much to bear. It does feel unnatural. And yet we remember we were so lucky to have known of their love and life.


  4. I do not think we own our lives, well not completely. I am reminded of the time one of my friends tried to commit suicide. I went to the hospital for a visit and his wife was there ... clearly very upset. She was screaming at him about how his life was not just his but hers, their childrens ... their families and friends. That we do not belong solely to ourselves but to others too.

    I snuck off rather than listen to more, but I remember thinking that in a way this idea of not belonging only to ourselves is not merely an obligation felt, but the essense of our inter-connectedness. That we actually belong to one another instead ... or at least as well.

    Do we own our bodies? That I see as an entirely different question. I think we have a responsibility towatds our bodies ... to help it to sustain us as well as it can. But own? Maybe we do, or maybe we are just passing through. Out bodies contain us ... perhaps it is that they own us ... hoever temporarily.

    Loss is hard to bear. In some ways the knowledge of imminent loss is harder than after the fact ... because we grieve both before and after. In other ways it is easier because we grieve both before and after ... we grieve even whilst they are letting us go too. We are never ready to lose a parent. Not at any age.

    Grete, I could sit here and write all day about this. However I must go to work. I am sorry for the loss of your father. Very sorry. I love the image of the wings flapping ... the hands waving.

    The ones we lose leave, but they also stay somewhere inside us. xx Jos

  5. I, too, am sorry for the loss of your father. Watching someone you love suffer and feeling helpless to stop it is a very desperate, despairing feeling.

    I'm a little startled to read this post, actually. This June 13 will mark the one year anniversary of my husband's death. His friends are gathering to remember him, but I have chosen to let this date quietly slip by. I do not wish to commemorate it.

    I think what Jos said about owning our bodies and our lives is poignant. My husband passed away suddenly. He was diabetic and just could not or would not take care of his body. Although I miss him every single day, a part of me is still angry with him for not taking better care of himself, for being so reckless and selfish. I wish he had seen how much his actions affected his family. I wish he knew how much his daughters would miss him. He thought he was stronger than he actually was.

    So no, I do not believe we own our lives or our bodies. They are borrowed and can be demanded back at any time. What we do own is our experiences and memories, and what we make of the time that we have.


  6. I came here via Amalia's blog but am very surprised to find my beloved sisterfriend Bella's comments. I remember that day she talks about, it is my own experience of course, because I was here in the US and she was abroad. I remember the pain and the sorrow and how I wish for a day or two I could take her place to relieve her agony.

    We do not own our bodies and lives. They were never ours to begin with. I do not know why we were brought here on earth but it is true, that what we have are our memories, feelings and thoughts and what we leave are our legends. We make our own legends through living everyday and if we waste that we leave nothing, just our dust.

    I am sorry for your loss. Both my father and mother are gone now. I did not have the chance to say goodbye to my father but I was there for my mother, in fact my sister and I officially pronounced her death clinically, but she, like our father, lives forever in my heart.

  7. Jos -

    Do we have any idea how important we are - to the people around us, to the world at large? One might FEEL insignificant, but feelings have sometimes very little to do with reality. The more we know about our impact on the world, the better, as your story shows. Not knowing, on the other hand, could have serious, dramatic consequences.

    The interconnectedness - absolutely. No man is an island...... This being separate as well as connected is an intriguing theme, and deserves a post of its own!

    Anything imminent is so hard because of that “stepping-into-the-unknown” factor. We cannot deal with what is ABOUT to happen, only what is actually there. And losing people is, yes, a loss. So final....

    Amalia -

    'Acceptance' is such a lovely word, such a healthy word, such a thoroughly true-to-life word, but still, a such a difficult word, such a difficult concept.

    Memories and faith - as amulets. What a beautiful idea. I see the two as little jewels around the neck, like gem stones. To carry. In happy moments. And sad. Thank you for passing this on.

    Erin - oh Erin -

    Your words always hit me somewhere in the belly. Though hitting might not be the right word. Still, there is some dull pain after reading lines about a young girl trying to come to grips with her father’s violent death. I am always, always intrigued by the logic of peoples stories, we often behave rational in very irrational ways. I know a lot of psychology today wants to skip the “going back” part of our lives, and instead learn methods and techniques for healthy thinking. Though I am very much in favor of such things as NLP and Positive Psychology I think some might miss vital points about The Grand Story of our lives. Our dignity rests on understanding why we do as we do.

    I see you have come far in aligning yourself in this understanding. Thank you for sharing your powerful words.

    Being honest about life is the only way I know. Sometimes I feel like a scientist, placing my life under a microscope. I study the behavioral patterns, I make notes, and then rapport back to base (me). So I’m both the observer and the observed....wherever that leads me.....

    Bella -

    Thank you for caring words.

    And I am thinking of your colossal loss. If only we knew the depth of our value! We carry such tremendous power, if power is the right word here, in all we are to other people. We have no idea! I believe we were loved into this world (and not merely by our parents), otherwise we would not be here. Then it is our mission to administer or steward this spark that ignited our lives. And having said that, I pull it all back. For it sounds life a demand, a must, which life cannot be. It is a gift. Whatever that means.

    Who owns our bodies? Who owns our lives? You tell me a story that makes my questions anything but rhetorical.

    Ces -

    It is difficult when others are in pain. We just want to see them in peace. Lucky Bella, to have you! And you to have Bella.

    I don’t know if its possible to just leave dust. Isn’t our legends written, whatever? We are so much more than we can fathom.

    I am also sorry about your parents, but you say it so well - “but she, like our father, lives forever in my heart.”

    Thank you, Jos, Amalia, Erin, Bella and Ces.