The Photograph

I stopped in front of the large photograph on the wall of the art gallery. It was a picture of a make-shift table, more a platform, pushed into the corner of a room. On the table was a simple place-setting: one plate, one fork, one knife, one cup. In the corner of the table was a book, partially read and marked with a bookmark. One chair was pulled up to the table, facing the corner. The wall behind the table was unadorned, devoid of any pictures that would draw the eye. That’s all. There was nothing more in the picture.

My friend said, “Now that’s an odd picture.” And moved on.

I lingered. I thought, This person lives alone. Or at least, the photographer knows what it’s like to live alone. The photo had a stark simplicity to it. Although it was in colour, it left me feeling black and white. It was a picture of life stripped down. But, therein, was its purity. It was a picture of the basic nature of a life when everything else is peeled away and someone is left alone. With no distractions other than that person’s own choosing.  After all, there was a partially read book on the table.

Living alone isn’t necessarily a bad life. It has its benefits. I spread eagle my body across my queen size bed every night, taking all the pillows. I wake up when I want to and retire at night whenever I wish. I have total T.V. remote control power. If I want to cook an extravagant meal with garlic shrimp, roasted eggplant, and Portobello mushrooms, I do. Sometimes I eat Kraft dinner. I have the freedom to jump on a plane or hop in the car and head out to see the world whenever I wish to. Life centers round my own needs and interests and desires. The rhythm of life is my own to create and I beat my own drum, loudly and joyfully. Living alone, one needs not be lonely. Family and friends are only a mouse click or text or telephone call away. Or not.

So, Mr. Photographer (or is it Miss or Mrs. or Ms.), I see your photograph of a life lived alone. But I think my own photo would look a little different. There would be a table with at least four chairs in a corner of a room. I would have one place setting facing out, but there would be a stack of plates and placemats and silverware on the opposite corner, ready for meal-time sharing when the opportunity arose. I would have a vase of bright red tulips in the middle of the table and a crystal glass ready to be topped with sparkling wine. The wall behind me would be filled with framed pictures: my daughters, my grandson, laughing faces in tropical settings, kangaroos and cockatoos, snow-covered mountains, and sunsets over the ocean. The sun would be streaming in from an unseen window flooding my little dining corner with golden rays. There wouldn’t be a book on the table. Good food and private musings would be enough for mealtime contemplation. It would be a photograph full of colour and light, potential, and gratitude. It would be a picture of life lived alone, but never lonely.

Tragedy and Martyrdom

At the recent wedding of my daughter and her new husband, the room seemed to be immersed in love and positive feelings. It was a room filled with large and close family groupings. One of the extended families consisted of 63 adults, another included five siblings and their parents and partners. All the guests seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely and there was a deep sense of community, family, and love among them. I knew that it was a room filled with people who had experienced pain and deep tragedy in their lives, but they didn’t come across as tragic figures or martyrs.

I watched with pleasure as six adult sisters dressed up in costumes and goofed around at the fun photo booth set up in a corner of the reception hall. I’m sure each one of them had experienced deep tragedy in their lives; they had lost their beloved mother in the past year, one of them I knew had lost a child at a young age, but there they were laughing, embracing and sharing the deep bond they obviously had for each other. At another table, a family member, who is dealing with cancer and is in active chemotherapy treatments, was there laughing uproariously with his large family as they shared stories and love. Most important of all, both families were having fun.

Life should be fun. When bad things happen or things make us unhappy, we can wrap ourselves up in it, cut the tragic figure, “Oh, woe is me!” Sometimes we can even take great pride in our tragedy: “Look at me. Look at how wonderfully I am handling my pain, my loss. Aren’t I wonderful?” We become the great martyr.

The sisters didn’t do that. The father, sick and weak with cancer, didn’t do that. We can’t stop the pain in our lives, but we don’t have to let it become our identity, the suffering martyr, the mourning tragic figure.

To live a life well-lived, let us remember that we are not grief itself. We experience grief. It is not my cancer. It is just the cancer. Don’t make pain your identity. Let it not define who you really are.