Friday, May 13, 2005

Not Steeleye Span-related

Last night, I--and my family--went to a memorial for my grandmother, Elizabeth. I actually met my cousins, George and Betty, for the first time ever. I was a bit trepidacious about this at first--there was no love lost between Elizabeth and her sister, their mother, my great-aunt Ella (whom I never met), and I thought this hostility might have sort of trickled down. But I was wrong; they were very pleasant people. I was especially impressed by George: very distinguished-looking, and admirable, too--given all the money in that side of the family, he wouldn't have needed to work a day in his life, but instead he's the director of a grant-making foundation devoted to environmental education, which is especially cool given how right-wing most of the people on that side are. They--George and Betty--seemed to have few illusions about the overall fucked-upedness of this family. "Mother always had to have someone to be angry at," George recalled. I think Elizabeth's particular angers were generally more long-term (her family, her husband's family, organized religions), but there were definite similarities. It's a real shame that their other sister, Alice, died relatively young, of cancer, in the early sixties. By all accounts, she was an extraordinarily sweet, good person (and, as photographs attest, a stunningly beautiful one); perhaps she would have served as a counterbalance to all the hostility floating around amongst her sisters. Or perhaps that's asking the impossible. Still, I'd have liked to have known her.

This family being sort of nominally Quaker, we went out to the meeting house for the service, which consisted of quiet contemplation. I had not seen the meeting house in many a year, and I was struck by its beauty. Out in a rural area, it's surrounded by a low stone wall, the yard filled with long, unmown grass and trees, with a few stone benches scattered here and there. In the back there's a small cemetary that dates back--apparently--to the early nineteenth-century. There's no ostentation there; the stones are all small and simple. Some of them are so old that, if they ever had inscriptions; they're long-gone to the point where it doesn't look as if anything was ever written thereon. The ephemerality of glory. "Glory" being a very relative term here, of course.

During the hour-long service, anyone moved by the spirit is free to offer any words that come to them. Many people, it seems, were really moved by Elizabeth; several of them were on the verge of tears. She was certainly a complex and contradictory person in many ways. I felt as if I should say something, but as I thought back, I realized that I didn't really HAVE any very strong memories involving her. The clearest ones are from recently, when she was just out of it, physically and mentally. I have inchoate memories of her and her husband's visits to Williamsport, which they would make ever year from the mid-eighties to early nineties, but nothing that really stands out. I know that at the time I thought they were pretty cool people, but there's no particular moment that impressed itself upon my memory. Life is strange and alarming. Nonetheless, I found it to be a moving service.

Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don't realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.


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