Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Colors of the Dead

Black is not the color of death. Mauve, taupe gray, and a sickly ecru are the colors of death, and of the worst kind—the death of purpose, and the death of spirit. You may notice that most corporate offices are decorated in these colors. So are nursing homes. Nursing homes add bright fuschias, teals, and hot pink colors to the death palette. It is a fraudulent attempt to be cheerful and vibrant in the face of the inevitable. And it takes those otherwise unassuming colors and makes them sickening. They don’t refer to sudden deaths where it’s all over in a minute—these are slow, painful deaths that strip you of your mind, your bodily functions, and your dignity. Your bright, cheery room that reeks of bodily fluids. Even the stark white of hospital rooms is not as offensive. Hospital room décor is inhuman. Nursing home décor attempts to be human, but only reflects the shells of people that are dying there.

When my time finally comes, I hope that I do not end up holed up in one of these cheery monstrosities. I think most of us hope we’ll just go to sleep one day when we’re old, and never wake up. But, given my family history, I am afraid I will have a decline one day, and I’d prefer to be holed up in an ancient house with dark wood and creaky floors, or an old monastery. I would rather blend in with my surroundings—to be as ancient and antique as the building I occupy.

Many of my friends would say, “Yes, Brigid, but you do that already”. And that is true. In spite of the maintenance, I prefer old houses with warped wooden floors, crazy walls built without a level, and lots of dark furniture and stained glass. A benign ghost or two is fine as well. My sister and I were talking over the weekend about our family, and she thought I was probably pushed into adulthood sooner than I would have liked. There were five of us in all, and I was the youngest—my next oldest sibling was six years older than me. So, when I was born, I was born among grown-ups, and wanted to do grown-up things. To this day, I’m not sure if I’m a real grown-up, or still pretending (though it seems that many—or even most—adults today feel like that).

I have a fascination with cemeteries. (If I sound very “gothic” to you, I assure you that I don’t really fit that category.) I gained this interest from my mother. When we would go on vacations, she liked to visit old graveyards, and that was during the days that they still let you do “grave rubbings” (that’s now known to deteriorate the stone, so it’s no longer allowed in most places). I live across the street from a cemetery, and I think that’s one of the best features of the house—I can look out my bedroom window and see the headstones in the distance. There is another house nearby that went into foreclosure—it borders the cemetery, but has a huge hedge between the house and the actual cemetery. According to my neighbors, most people who sought to buy the house didn’t want it because of its proximity to the cemetery. And recently—there was an article about using Google Earth to look at your prospective home before buying it—and one of the things they said you’d want to watch out for was a cemetery nearby. They treated it as a negative. Why? Have people been watching too many zombie movies? Do they think your house is automatically haunted if you live near a cemetery? (Mine isn’t). Personally, I like quiet neighbors. And they’re a great place to walk and get a sense of the history of the area. Am I in the minority?

If I am in the minority, then that might explain why nursing homes look the way they do. I hate to sound all “Heideggerian”, but I really think people can’t face the idea of death. They want a distraction, no matter how tasteless. I am reminded of Dave Barry’s article about his brown lawn. When the grass died, he decided to take a page from the National Parks Department (which paints its rocks) and paint his lawn. We think that putting a colorful gloss on things makes the “death” part less obvious, but it doesn’t. It’s still dying, and now it just looks like someone threw up on it.

An analogy can probably be drawn to the current situation with the Islamic Community Center in downtown Manhattan. (No, it is not a “mosque”. And it is not at “Ground Zero”. The next person who says that either of those things are true is going to get beat over the head with a stack of old Sunday New York Times). Those protesting the center are likely a part of the current “Tea Party” movement in the United States. (They may not all be tea-partiers, but their rhetoric is quite similar). If you toss out their argument—which is purely xenophobic and has no basis in fact—you get down to the core, which is that the dynamic and demographic of the country is changing. There is a slow death of what some have taken as “traditional” in American culture—assumptions about race in America, assumptions about religion in America (ideally—white, male-dominated, Protestant Christian)—and those that refuse to accept the death are waging a fierce war of rhetoric and emotion with nothing behind it. It’s always been a fallacy—the only thing dying is the false conception, which is not a bad thing. But those who stake their identity and beliefs on the fallacy can’t let go of it. There isn’t an acceptance, just an attempt to paint over it with tacky images of flag, Mom, church, and apple pie. Hook it up to life support and keep it going, even though it’s obviously dead.

I should be clear that this is an empty reiteration of tradition—most of these people cite the Constitution, and usually erroneously. They’ve never read it. They don’t read history. They read bastardizations of history by people thrown out of universities as crackpots, if they read at all. But it's not about facts, it's about obsolete myths.

However, you can only beat a dead horse for so long, and at some point the inevitable occurs. I like to think that this particular group of Americans (Red-staters? Middle Americans?) are going through a tough grieving process. Acceptance is always at the end of it.

1 comment:

CJL said...

We looked at two houses here in Tokyo that had cemeteries next to them. The valuable point being that the headstones (or the equivalent of, as these graves are for families, not individuals) where are a lot lower than any nearby building, and hence you actually get a "view" from your window as opposed to just seeing your neighbours wall (planning restrictions are that you can build up to 50cm from your land's border). Sadly the price/size equation didn't match our expectations, and now we live on a hill with a fairly decent view from the 3rd floor! As you noted, the "quiet" neighbours seemed very attractive.

Must admit too, that the tea partiers do seem to be a bit lacking in both racial and financial diversity, or maybe I'm just seeing a small segment? Given that the caucasian history hasn't been in North America all that long (500 years? If you accept Columbus as the first to introduce dialogue with natives) it is surprising how strong it has dug in. It will only be a few more generations before it is uprooted again though, as this world just gets smaller and smaller.