They played La Mer at Aunt Birgit's funeral. At first it seemed odd to listen to this cheerful, unassuming tune while facing a white coffin in a church filled with people clad in black. Soon it felt like just the right thing to do.
The tune played in my head as I sat on the Piccadilly Line on my way from Heathrow into town and watched the young family across from me. Between the two parents sat a frail child whose legs swung mischievously from her seat over the floor of the train. She was absorbed in a game on her father's tablet, just like any other normal 21st century child. Yet, the large size of her head, its unusual shape and the protruding eyes from a flat face suggested that there was something abnormal about this child. When she tired of the game and looked up, one saw the face of an elderly person in a child's face. As she passed the tablet back to her father, I noticed that her fingers were shorter than normal. She had been incredibly adept to use the tablet at all.
My thoughts scolded me. It was "discrimination" to notice such things. Yet, La Mer continued to play in my mind's background, its playfulness drawing me away from the self-reprimand. It was impossible not to watch the interaction in this young family as the tired mother, grey before her time, smiled and stroked her child affectionately. The father spoke constantly with his child, joking and laughing with her. He drew a chocolate bar out of his suitcase, delighting the child by removing the wrapper and handing it over. She quickly devoured it, save the last bite which seemed too much to finish, even for such a "big" little girl. The mother took the last gooey bit from her and popped it in her mouth, while the father cleaned the tiny, short fingers with a tissue. The girl seemed satisfied. Her parents beamed at her, like two suns over a precious planet.
La Mer played and played to the end of the long train journey. Soon it began to dawn on me that it had not only been the perfect song for Aunt Birgit's funeral, but also the perfect song for the journey with this family. It was composed in 1943 amid the horrors of World War II, when our contempt for weakness, which lies at the very root of facism, shook our humanity. This mild song with its longing and playfulness resisted all calls for overbearing shows of strength. It was precisely because of its unpretentiousness amid the shouting and barbarousness that it soared above all other sounds. What does it take to compose a mild song amid the military marches? What does it take to find joy in a child who most likely has had to deal with a great deal of misery? What does it take to play La Mer in the face of death? Undoubtedly strength.
Listen to La Mer.
The leaves were like great yellow and brown palms extended across the ground where they had fallen. They were a splash of color on a mid-October day when the world seemed a black-and-white photograph. History seems so present in our everyday, and every day becomes new history. As I began to wander into the complexity of this thought, my head began to ache. It was all so burdensome.
Ellie the dog and I ventured along the row of eighteenth century houses lining the border of the park with the surrounding farmland. A wreath of bright yellow leaves jumped out at me from one of the doors. Immediately I was drawn to the idea and went closer to see how it had been assembled. This would become my project for the day - my way of leaving the mental conundrums of the week behind me. I would spend my time gathering a basketful of those yellow palms that caressed the earth, and then sit down at my kitchen table to make my own wreath out of nature's art supplies. In their purity and simplicity, I would be freed from the labyrinths of analysis that only led to contradiction.
As I removed the first leaf from the basket on my kitchen table, I noticed that it wasn't just yellow. The veins of the leaf were crossed by islands of orange and brown that marked the ongoing process of decomposition. There were holes where the insects had been. The surface of the leaf suddenly became the story of all living things: one of constant interaction with everything around it, going the way of all organic matter in every second of every day. The simplicity of the leaf and the wreath was a tale of the tired. It was invented in a moment when the wherewithal to see the interconnections was lacking.
It's easy to understand people who look for simple answers. At some point we all do. Things seem right when they are straight-forward, unembellished, pared down. Yet, behind anything in its most basic form, there is a myriad of veins, yellow islands and holes through which one can look to something else: another set of variables and another world that contradicts the smooth surface of the yellow leaf.