The Eye Behind the Camera: Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson

image of a woman with her eye to a camera. to the right of her head are the words "camera person: a film by kirsten johnson" in yellow, white, and black narrow block type. When we first see the close-up of the dead bird on the ground, we wonder why. It’s only a few scenes later that we return to the site of the bird to see two young children, twin brother and sister, asking their mother and grandfather if they can go outside to bury the dead bird.

“I’ll put it underneath this rhododendron tree,” the grandfather tells them, “and that way it will cause the rhododendron tree to grow because it will fertilize it.”

He looks at his daughter—the twins’ mother—who is also the cameraperson, so it’s as if he’s looking at us. “What’s the word? Ashes to ashes, dirt to dirt?”

In creating a non-linear montage of moments drawn from her work as a cinematographer during the last twenty-five years, Kirsten Johnson searches for some contiguous logic that can make sense of the seemingly disparate moments that have, in her words, most marked her.

The viewer will see many different countries via footage from twenty-four documentaries. One moment will be in the Bosnian Mountains, the next on New York City streets. We first become attuned to the montage as pattern because eventually we return to a particular subject we’d seen earlier; the first emerging motif is that Johnson has documented sites of great violence and death, especially in the aftermath when grief afflicts memory.

If pain and death are part of life’s tapestry, can the pattern be beautiful? [Read more…]

God is a Wild Old Dog

Drawing of a dog with its front paws off the ground. The dog is looking backwards slightly, and its tail is up. God is a wild old dog / Someone left out on the highway

—Patty Griffin “Wild Old Dog”

It is the first week of spring and I sit in the small cemetery on our community property. The bench underneath me is green and mossy from the confusion of a mild winter that left us with buds in February and tornado warnings in early March. The daffodils are the earliest signs of life as they begin to bloom around the small gravestones here, some of them marked for infants who died just after birth.

All these natural metaphors are not lost on me: I am seven months pregnant with our fourth child, mourning the death of my dad and the death of our community. After our baby is born, we are likely to move on from this place to another, packing with us all the excitement, grief, worry, and hope we cannot leave behind.

Life, death, suffering, and blessing are huddled so close together that they often resemble one another. It can be confusing to pick through them.

Maybe it is because of my privilege that I don’t wonder where God is in all of this: even if my husband is without a job for a few months, we still have family and friends and savings to fall back on. Or maybe it’s because I’ve discovered something strange about God in the midst of all this confusion and grief. [Read more…]

The Landscape of Grief

a purple tinted image of a little island in a lake surrounded by deep green, hilly land on the edges. the image is very foggy, hazy, looks wet. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.
—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I drag my three children outside for a walk. They are too young to understand how desperately I need to take advantage of the warm weather even if it’s a landscape of dormant fields, melting mud, brittle gray plants that line the bridge and sides of the road, a bright red barn against yellowed grass.

Lest I get too excited about the lack of snow and cold, my husband reminds me that this unseasonably pleasant winter in the Midwest is the result of global warming. I guess we both have our ways of grieving.

This is our first day back in Illinois after spending a week in Texas to grieve the loss of my father. We’ve eaten too much or too little depending on our body’s responses to stress. We’ve laid flowers on his coffin and wept over him in a gravesite service that he might’ve hated, but was one that his daughters and wife needed. Then we mourned him at a church memorial service that he planned before his death, writing his own obituary and the opening remarks he asked my husband to read, ones that unapologetically deflected attention away from himself.

But we three daughters inserted ourselves into his plan, a plan that didn’t necessarily include our grief. In this midst of his intellectual, cerebral, worshipful funeral, we spoke of him in ways that might’ve touched him but also might’ve confused him.

In his effort to plan his truly humble memorial, he didn’t sidestep our grief to be unkind; I’m sure he knew we’d miss him terribly. Maybe he thought that if he could deflect attention away from himself, we wouldn’t be so sad. But what he wouldn’t have guessed, or what might’ve annoyed him, was that most people that came to honor him wanted more of him. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Grief Daybook: A Love Supreme”

a woman sits in a room lit by a single lamp, the rest of the room is shrouded in shadows. she has her hand up and is holding a cup, her face is turned away and bathed in shadows. on the wall sits images and postcards, and a desk is full of books and small papers.It’s fairly common for a poem to be inspired by (or be in conversation with) a famous painting. Less often, though, do we find poems engaging with a musical work. Yet that’s just what happens in Carol Davis’s poem “Grief Daybook: A Love Supreme.” Fans of the brilliant jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane will immediately recognize in Davis’s title the name of Coltrane’s masterpiece, “A Love Supreme.” And a line from the final movement of this work, “Psalm,” is quoted in the second stanza of Davis’s poem. For Coltrane, the “Love Supreme” is God. For Davis’s speaker, it’s less clear. The poem opens with disturbing images of bodily disintegration. Coltrane’s piece then enters the poem, offering the speaker the possibility of “another pulse in me.” Hopeful musical images continue into stanza three, with the church’s organ heard from across the street. But then, in the final stanza, musical images merge with the (apparent) loss of a loved one. “Where you’ve gone,” psalms like Coltrane’s ecstatic praise of God are abundant. Yet on the cello’s neck, “fingers [wait] / above a stalled note”: the poem’s speaker longs to connect with the lost one (“ear of my ear”), but can’t. Something is stalled; loss finally overwhelms the speaker. So the poem gives in to the grief of its title: “Grief Daybook.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

The Song of the Desert

dots-by-barbara-w-on-flickrThe Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.

—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

When the hospice nurse and social worker come to my parent’s home the first time, they are not what my sisters and I expect. Perhaps I was expecting a cliché: calm and restful sorts, hired because of their ability to show quiet dignity to patients who are dying. Instead, they are chatty and gregarious. Though their demeanor is initially surprising, there is a certain charm and assurance to their lack of worry about being so close to death; surely they also need a way to cope with the heavy burden of their job.

They are kind and highly knowledgeable, but they rush my mom through the heavy information about signing Do Not Resuscitate at Home forms, the different kinds of pain management options, and noticing the stages before death.

The nurse enthusiastically declares that she used to be afraid of morphine but she loves it now because of the relief it offers to suffering patients. I suppose it could seem jarring to someone newly acquainted with hospice care, but I think it’s necessary for my mom to hear. She’s been afraid of giving my father too much pain medication, afraid that she’ll be the one to kill him, not the cancer. [Read more…]