“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” ~ Henry David Thoreau.
Wales is known as the land of song. It is the land of my forefathers too; both of my parents were descended from men and women that lived in that historic piece of the United Kingdom. It is a land of great beauty, harsh and forbidding mountains that climb to craggy peaks. The hillsides leak tears, which join together in running rivulets, then burbling streams lead to rushing rivers which eventually run into the ocean that surrounds three of its edges. Welsh people sing before they can speak. Welsh male voice choirs travel around the world to delight audiences with their beautiful harmonies. Sometimes they sing in the incomprehensible mother tongue (the language spoken in heaven, so my father would say), accompanied by the dulcet tones of a harp, or perhaps a piano. But those voices, even unaccompanied, bring a shiver to your spine, transport you to a place of unity and harmony.
Last weekend there were a number of funerals associated with my husband’s family. Funerals are always good times for reflecting on this funny thing called life. It is when giving birth to a second (or third, or fourth) child that you remember so clearly the experience of the first, even though in between times those memories are faint. In the same way funerals send your mind running to all of those other funerals, all of those deaths you have experienced, all of those who are no longer a phone call away.
Even though my mother died almost three years ago, she still provides commentary to my life. When I see beautiful flowers, or an amazing sunset, or watch the birds, I think of how much she would enjoy them too. She loved beautiful things, and had an artist’s eye. She was the photographer of the family, back in the day when you had no idea what your pictures looked like until you finished the film (and she shot 36 frames of Agfa film, printed into slides), and you couldn’t waste resources by taking multiple shots.
She was not the softest, most motherly of mothers. She tended to be a bit rough, pushing you to be your best, to be responsible and accountable. But she had some comforting words that she probably learned from her mother. They made very little sense, but they were designed to reassure. If you were making too much fuss over a cut or a minor scrape she would tell you not to worry: “It will be a pig’s foot in the morning.” Don’t ask for explanation, I think it was to remind you not to sweat the small stuff! Or if you were concerned about some flaw in your outfit, something that made you self-conscious, she would tell you: “A blind man and a galloping horse…” That incomplete sentence was supposed to let you know that whatever it was wasn’t enough to draw the attention of those passing. When you were stuck feeling sorry for yourself, perhaps over some project that should have been far easier than you made it out to be, she would tell you: “Stop making a meal of it!” But the weirdest thing I ever heard her say was in reference to someone who seemed to be acting strange, a little unhinged, she would say that they needed ‘their bumps felt’. For years I thought that meant that they needed a dose of corporal punishment, until I learned about phrenology, a ‘pseudomedicine’ where the bumps of the cranium supposedly explained a person’s psychological attributes!
In life the people we are closest to may be annoying, difficult, irritating. In death it as if those negative attributes evaporate off, leaving a memory mostly of the best of them. The person that was impossible to live with is gone, what remains is the evidence of the good they did, the people they impacted, the children and grandchildren who carry their DNA. Death forces you to acknowledge time wasted. It reminds you that nothing is guaranteed. One of my nursing graduates recently experienced the joy of being proposed to after the graduation ceremony, only to lose her brother in an accident a few weeks later.
We mere mortals are complicated beings, and it is sometimes challenging, within the confines of a traditional Christian funeral, to be able to capture the totality of a person’s life. Some of the best tributes I have heard at funerals are the ones that acknowledge that imperfection, that complexity. Some tributes are too fulsome, they camouflage the person you thought you knew. But if you are lucky, the tribute will recall both the bad and the good, without being disrespectful to the memory of the deceased, without shocking those gathered in mourning.
I have been to funerals of people that I may not have gotten on with, of people I found to be annoying in life, and discovered more about them in that service than I ever knew while they were alive. Often, if we are put off by something in a person (in Jamaica we say ‘mi spirit no tek them’ – some instinctive mistrust) we never make an effort to get to know their story. It is a shame indeed if the only time we truly know a person is after they are no longer available to be known.
If you shoot photographs with only one lens, you are missing out. The wide-angle view captures a great scene, but you miss out on the details. The close-up gives amazing detail, but you are missing out on the big picture. Perhaps there are times when just changing the lens, changing our point of view, can help us see a situation or a person differently, and allow us to more completely know them.
This Friday morning I challenge you to change the way you see someone, to see if it changes how you react to them. Reframing a situation may help you to see it as a challenge, not an obstacle. Reassessing the way you approach your life may provide opportunities you didn’t know you had. And don’t forget to sing Songs of Praises! Have a wonderful weekend, Family!