industrious ants

All about a life in motion.

Month: May, 2013

Where Stories Were Told

One of the coolest job’s i’ve ever had was ushering and bar tending at the majestic and beautiful Massey Hall concert venue in Toronto. I sort of chuckle now and wonder how good I really could have been at my job, because I really didn’t drink much back then. I hated making martinis, because no matter which way I made them, dirty, dry, they always tasted horrible to me, so I had no idea if I was doing it right or not. Thankfully it was usually not that sophisticated a crowd that rushed our bar during intermission, and the only thing I had to do well was pour a bottle of beer, and fast. It’s funny to think that I learned how to pour two at once before actually ever drinking those same beers myself.

The hours at Massey weren’t exactly what one would call consistent. We only worked if and when there was a show, and sometimes we’d go weeks without a shift. In any case, most of the staff held other jobs. I was working as a barista at a coffee shop (which is also ironic, cause I didn’t really drink much coffee back then either). Massey was something you did, not for the money, but for the fun of it. How could you not be having an amazing time when you were getting paid to watch Sting, or Cindy Lauper, or Sigur Ros or Beck or The Flaming Lips or better yet, work their after party. I think I reached the pinnacle of my bar tending career when I was asked to stock Alice Cooper’s dressing room with drinks. His drink of choice, Starbucks Frappacinos. I became an instant fan right then and there.

What really made the job special though was the people I worked with. Our bosses and managers were always professional but cool, and my fellow coworkers were one big happy mess of interesting people. One guy was a lawyer, another girl a professional clown. There was a standup comedian, a cartoonist, a guy in real estate, a sports journalist, boys in bands (some semi famous, others very unknown), people who owned their own businesses and others who surfed friend’s couches not sure of their life’s direction just yet. Wether you were working the bar, tearing tickets at the door, or showing people to their seats, there was almost always someone else by your side helping you out. Conversation, story telling and swapping secrets were inevitably going to happen.

I love stories. Especially the ones that are told by people about themselves, the true ones that you never could have guessed, ever, even if you tried, but once you sat there and heard the whole thing through, everything about that person made so much more sense, and in fact life seemed to make more sense too. You know…the stories that people tell you that you don’t forget. The ones you can’t forget.

One just like that was dropped at my feet by a debonaire friend and usher on a quiet and boring night down in the bar as I waited for the show to end and the after party to begin. It started with me brewing coffee and pouring us both a cup and then somehow through random chit chat the tale made its way out of his mouth, into my ears and burned itself on my mind forever. It was about how years ago while traveling through Thailand he found himself accepting a too good to be true offer to smuggle drugs onto a flight into Taiwan. And of course, being too good to be true, he was caught at the airport and sentenced to 12 years in a Taiwanese prison. His family could do nothing, except send him books and crossword puzzles, so aside from eating a lot of rice, he read quite a bit and learned how to speak Mandarin. Prisoners weren’t allowed out very often and it was hard to tell how much time was passing. He said he always knew a month had gone by when all the inmates had their heads shaved. Head lice was apparently a big problem. 4 years into his sentence, unannounced, he was released and deported back to Canada.

That’s the story. Through his retelling there were moments when he smiled, or chuckled a little bit over these memories. That was the intriguing thing about it. He could think about his experience, tell me everything, and even speak fondly about some things. It was as if there was something he found there within himself that he was happy to have stumbled upon. It was quite amazing. I have no recollection of anything he told me after that. I don’t know how long it was between his arrival home and that night that he leaned against the bar, sipping the horrible house coffee and sharing 4 years of his life with me in one conversation. I haven’t seen him or even heard his name spoken out loud in so much time, but I guess because this is my fourth and final year in Japan my mind has pulled his story up from its database trying to compare and draw a relationship between the two of us. In the end there isn’t much there in common. Except maybe the part about the rice.

If I saw him again, the first thing I would want to ask him is “Would you take it back?” And I think this is the question that all of us might ask ourselves when we end up trapped in the circumstances of our lives or actions. Would we take it back? Of course, who in their right mind would say “I really want to spend the best years of my young life sitting in an Asian jail with hijackers and gang members!” But if you did happen to end up in such a dark place, and lived through it, and came out the other side into freedom, would you want to change the person you’d become? Undoubtedly, it all depends on the person you were going in and who you chose to be coming out.

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In Life And Death

In our four years here in Japan we’ve seen some friends and acquaintances pass away; a student’s father, an old high school classmate, our elderly neighbour. When someone close to you dies, it’s always shocking, wether you expect it or not. But likewise, I find the death of acquaintances or friends of friends to be unsettling, because it manifests so much pain in the people you know and love. You want their suffering to subside, so you suffer a little with them. Everyone involved is so helpless to do anything and for some it can make being around the surviving family uncomfortable. You don’t know what to say and you don’t know what to do for them. It’s amazing that something as normal as dying feels so unnatural.

That said, the older I get, the more accustomed I seem to be getting with the concept of dying. I am happy for that, because obviously it is going to happen to each and every one of us. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that right now, but maybe when the day comes where I lose own parents or friends, it will be  harder to deal with. For the time being though I feel like I can mentally cope with this process, at least when it happens to others. I am grateful to my mom and dad for never trying to protect me from the concept of mourning or trying to sterilize death. I remember being shown pictures of my grandfather’s funeral in India when I was about 14 or 15 years old. The pictures were of my uncles, literally holding their dead father’s body. Some were posed pictures with my grandfather positioned on someones lap. Others were shots of them carrying the body in their arms from one location to another. The funeral viewing was held in someones home and friends and family dug the grave themselves.

At the time I was a bit taken aback by those shots. It wasn’t so much the sight of the body, but of the act of people touching and holding it. I’d been to a couple funerals in Canada, but holding the body was completely out of the question. In fact at my Grandma Lieberman’s funeral (not a real grandmother, just a very close friend of the family) we were specifically directed not to touch the body, because it had gone through Jewish rites of purification. It was interesting to see my Indian family members pass around the pictures of Papa, because they didn’t seem to be perturbed at all. Instead they made comments about the flowers, about how good he looked in his suit, about the friends in the background who had been able to attend the ceremony. They brought up funny memories, they reminisced. There was no discomfort in the experience.

Recently, a close Japanese friend of mine lost a very dear family member to sudden and tragic circumstances. It was hard on their family and by the time I was made aware of the situation some time had passed. We spoke at length about what happened, how the funeral arrangements had unfolded, how the family was holding up. I felt blessed that my friend would share such intimate details with me. I learned that in Japan it is custom for a family to tend to the body themselves in preparation for the funeral. Washing it, applying makeup, doing their hair and dressing them in a favourite outfit. These are all things that the family is welcome to do themselves. My friend spoke tenderly about touching the face and body of her loved one. The family does not leave the body alone and stays with it to the very end. They sleep beside it at the funeral home, laying out futons on the floor next to the coffin. They stand by it when friends and family arrive to pay their condolences. When the body is finally cremated, they pick through the ashes with chopsticks and pass the bones to each other, placing them carefully in an urn to later place in a grave. For a culture that in life seems to emphasize personal space and privacy, departing takes on a stark contrasting level of intimacy.

I thought that it was a beautiful thing for my friend to have the chance to be so close to her loved one in the final days before the cremation. Maybe not everyone would agree though. Some might find the whole thing a little morbid. It’s the Christian thing to say “It’s just a body, it’s empty, nothing is there anymore”, as if that line of thinking is supposed to somehow soften the blow of all the memories and sadness we feel when we see the dead face of our friend or relative. As many times as I have uttered those same words myself, more recently I feel a change of heart. I can liken my sentiments to the feelings I have about a house. This year, Matt’s parents will be selling their North Dakota house to the city so that a levy can be built on their land. Flood waters reek havoc on their town every year, and finally a buyout was arranged to try and remedy the situation. His family has lived in that house for 35 years. All four brothers were raised there. It’s the place where Christmas presents were unwrapped, grandchildren learned to walk and where we were married in the backyard. The house will likely be destroyed, the pool filled in, the old oak tree in the back cut down. Sure, it’s just a house, but it conjures up deep feelings to know that it will be torn down after it is vacated. So then it wasn’t really just a house. It was also a home and it’s sad to think that no more memories will ever be made there again.

And of course, we can all say that it’s just a body, but it could also be a sister or a friend or a colleague. It’s hard to separate the relationship between the structure and core so suddenly because over time they become one in the same. The body and the house are the tangible symbols of the intangible life and spirit within that meant so much to us. Saying goodbye to just a spirit might make us feel empty. We can’t really put a face on it so to speak. So can it really be so wrong to mourn the passing of both?

I think having a child has made me understand the long healing process after such a profound experience a little bit better. When it comes to birth, it  takes a long time to shape that new little person inside of you. It is beautiful and uncomfortable and physically altering. It’s a special 9 months. After that life comes into the world our bodies are shocked by their absence and repair themselves slowly. Honestly speaking though, they are never quite the same again. If any mother out their says otherwise, they’re lying. 2 years after Noah’s birth I am finally able to fit into my old jeans, but under them hidden stretch marks remain, amongst other physical changes. Still, I can live with this because it is a small cost to pay for bringing Noah into the world. Should I not expect the same from death? Our relationships with people are beautiful and messy and soul altering. They are special. When our loved ones leave us we are changed  by the impact they had on our lives and their sudden absence from it . The pain softens bit by bit, and slowly we get back into our daily routines, but we can never be the same. They are gone, in body and in spirit, and when they left a little piece of us went with them. Is this too costly a price to pay for what we got in return? And further still, was there more that we could have given them before they left? I guess we all have to answer those questions for ourselves.