Originally uploaded by lapinfille.
Yep. Some people collect first edition books, others pay obscene money for celebrity memorabilia, stuff like the Kleenex from Jack Kerouac's pocket, one of Marilyn's old socks; and then there's the eternal allure of stamps and rocks. But me, my only real collection is a folder stuffed with the little life summaries we call obituaries. Strangers' obituaries.
Though I haven't yet reached the age when I turn to the obits to find out what my old friends have been up to lately, it is the first thing I read in the paper. It's not always the most pleasant way to start the day. If the notices describe a life cut short, or a death that simply shouldn't have happened, I share in the grief.
I scan quickly, and like the discriminating shell collector, rarely find anything worthy of picking up off the beach, polishing and adding to my bucket.
I skim through the standard obits that list educational background, line of work, and survivors. The standard cocktail party questions we use to validate our existence: what do you do? Any children? Not very telling at a cocktail party, and not in an obit either.
Nor do I find many death notices of the famous worth saving. When I read a biography, I'm usually only interested in the starving and striving years. After fame is achieved, the story tends to flatten into a series of went-heres, won this, was honored with thats, and met so and sos. But what does this really say about the person?
No, what I want to hear is what the life was about. What the dead one loved and hated, what music they thought of as the soundtrack of their life (as Liz said in the comment section of my last post) what made them unique and irreplaceable, the one true thing they learned in life.
One exception to my avoidance of the well-known dead is John Fahey, an iconoclastic guitarist whose life was changed when he heard Willie Johnson sing, "Praise God I'm satisfied." After a successful and even more interesting career, Fahey was beset by the three gods of bad luck later in life. Divorce, illness, and drinking caused him to lose his house, and landed him in a mission. But before his death, he rose again, leaving the world with this provocative quote: "I never considered for a minute that I had talent. What I did have was divine inspiration and an open subconscious." An interesting--and humble--recipe for creativity if I ever heard one.
And how could I resist, clipping the obit of Fred Rosenstiel? After losing his entire family in the Holocaust, he devoted every waking moment of his life to planting flowers. It was, he said,
the only way he could alleviate "an abiding sadness in his heart."
Then there was Anton Rosenberg, "a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of 1950s cool to such a laid back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything." There have definitely been times in my life when I felt like I was Anton Rosenberg--without the hipster cool, of course.
I've got Rose Freedman, the one survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a tragedy that killed 146 of her co-workers in half an hour. For the rest of her life, Rose would crusade for worker safety, telling and retelling the story of the executives who went out through the roof, and never bothered to leave the door open for the workers. "What good is a rich man if he hasn't got a heart?" she asked again and again to people all over this country. It's a question that still echoes.
Somehow, over the years, the people in my obit collection have become friends. Whenever I think I'm becoming too uncool, I invoke Anton and he straightens me out; or if I'm whining about something that isn't going my way, I remember John Fahey, who used "Praise God, I'm satisfied" as a personal mantra throughout the years of homelessness and desperation. How can I do anything but sing?
On another note, the gracious Jordan Rosenfeld was kind enough to ask me to submit a
Wednesday Essay to her always fascinating blog, Write Livelihood. If you would like to read
"Everything I know about Getting Words on Paper," please visit.