Me and mom, from the mid-1980s
When the phone rang just after midnight on Monday evening, I knew what to expect. It was a doctor at the Catskill Regional Hospital in upstate New York informing me that my mother had just died in her room in the geriatrics ward. She was two months short of her 88th birthday and probably died of heart failure, although the doctor could not be sure.
I went upstate on Tuesday morning and returned Thursday evening, a few hours after the funeral. For those few days, I was immersed in grief and cried repeatedly. As a generally self-contained personality, I was surprised by how hard my mother’s death hit me. Over the years, I have spent summer days on the beach facing the Atlantic Ocean near an old friend’s house in Rockaway. There is a strong undertow there and inexperienced swimmers drown every so often. I am not much of a swimmer and never venture much more than 50 feet into the turbulent waters but occasionally a powerful wave will wash over me and knock me off my feet into the ocean, where I struggle momentarily to reach the surface. That was what my grief felt like this week.
They say that the personal is political and that can’t be more true for people in my age bracket who were radicalized by the war in Vietnam. Now in our sixties, we find ourselves grappling with the problem of caring for aging parents. I wrote about this for MRZine a while back. Here are the first two paragraphs:
In May of 2004, my mother finally went into a nursing home after three years of mounting health problems. Many baby boomers besides me have also found themselves coping with the difficulties of looking after aging parents who can barely care for themselves, just as they near retirement age. It is analogous to the burden one assumes in raising a child, but without compensating joys. This generational drama involves intense personal and social pressures. Inevitably, questions of one’s own mortality, too, are posed for the middle-aged son or daughter of a parent struggling to remain independent. When you reach sixty, as I have, you begin to realize that you too are susceptible to failing health. You are also confronted with major economic challenges, since the costs of care for the elderly are enormous in a capitalist society racing to eradicate the last vestiges of the welfare state.
In years past, elderly parents were taken into their children’s home. With the breakdown of rural life, this is no longer the case. Capitalist society is very good at turning people into individual economic actors but even better at destroying traditional bonds of solidarity and support.
On Tuesday I went up to my mother’s room and sorted through her papers trying–unsuccessfully–to find an obituary that she had written just for the occasion. I ended up writing one myself:
Sullivan County Democrat, May 16, 2008
Ann Proyect passed away on May 12, 2008 at the Skilled Nursing Unit facility at Catskill Regional Medical Center, where she always felt at home during her final years. She repeatedly paid tribute to the compassion and the expert care she received from the staff. She was 87.
Ann, who was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., moved to Woodridge shortly after the end of WWII with her husband Jacob who predeceased her. She was very involved with civic life in Woodridge, serving as an officer of Hadassah during the 1950s as part of a lifelong commitment to the Jewish state.
Ann was also very committed to Jewish values, especially as reflected in the reform Judaism of Temple Sholom in Monticello where she was an enthusiastic member of the congregation for over 20 years. She worked closely with fellow congregant and close companion Victor Gordon in organizing yearly yard sales to benefit the temple.
She was also a journalist who wrote a regular column about Woodridge for local newspapers, including the Sullivan County Democrat at one time.
Ann was well-known for warmth and generosity as well as her sometimes stubborn adherence to the values that sustained her over a lifetime.
She was predeceased by a son, Allen. Her son, Louis Proyect is a resident of Manhattan and a longtime employee of Columbia University.
Although I loved my mother dearly, her Zionism did drive me crazy. No matter how many times I asked her not to bring up Israel, she kept returning to the subject. Just a few days before she died, she mailed me a large envelope full of clippings from the local newspapers. Sandwiched in between such items as the status of Bald Eagles on the Delaware River was an article making the case for Israel. I told my wife that my mom was up to her old tricks.
It was clear that I had inherited her zealotry gene. Where she had devoted herself to an idealized Israel of kibbutzim and trees growing in the desert, I was just as stubborn in my own devotion to a socialist ideal. And, like my mother, I could be gracious to people who agreed with my vision and just as prickly when they did not. As the rabbi told the congregation during the funeral service, my mother was never shy about telling people what she thought. Neither am I.
From the minute I received the phone call Monday night to arriving at the cemetery, I was beside myself with grief. But not long after the coffin was lowered into the earth and the last shovel full of dirt placed on top of it, my spirits began to lift. A sense of closure lifted me from the ocean’s water.
It dawned on me later that the funeral service was the first of any kind of Jewish liturgy that I had participated in since 1970 when my father died. Obviously, I was obligated to go to a synagogue in such circumstances. This time around I paid closer attention to the sermon since I had a lot more emotional investment in my mother’s life than in my father’s, a cold and remote figure. The rabbi kept stressing how my mother would be with God now, an idea that obviously holds little water with me.
But I realized that whether or not she was six feet under or up in heaven, the experience of praying in her memory meant a lot to her fellow believers and even to me, the life-long atheist. As part of a ritual that the Monticello, NY Reform Synagogue she belonged to, attendees surrounding the burial plot were invited to take turns shoveling in some earth which the rabbi likened to a parent tucking their child into bed.
As Marx once said, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
In a life sometimes filled with tragedy, my mother turned to religion to help her with “real suffering”. In a life filled with political engagement, I found myself consoled by a religious ceremony that had little to do with my own analytical and materialist core beliefs. As such it was therapeutic.
I can’t say that this experience has turned me into a believer, but in years to come I will certainly be tempted to recite the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish on May 12th each year, the day of her passing: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.”
Home » Proponent of Culture » Cultivating the Human Spirit
A Revitalizing Power
"Culture is the polar opposite of the violence of war; I see culture and the arts as the expressions of the joy of life."1--Daisaku Ikeda
Ikeda (left) with a fellow student (late 1940s)
Daisaku Ikeda grew up in Japan during World War II. He was in his late teens when the war ended. It was a time that saw the nation slip from the stoic misery of the war years into the confusion and poverty of defeat and an uncertain future.
"In that period of darkness and despair," Ikeda writes, "music, along with literature, was a precious source of hope and inspiration for me." He recalls the effect on the Japanese people of the music of the great violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin when he visited Japan in 1951. Menuhin's music brought "a powerful surge of hope and courage," to people still recovering from the desolation of the war. Art critic Hideo Kobayashi wrote of it, "I trembled and wept . . . What heavenly sound! I realized how I had been thirsting for such beauty."2
Ikeda's sense of the great power of culture and the arts to uplift and assuage people would later become an underlying current in his philosophy of and activism for peace. It was during the turbulent period of his youth that this sensibility was forged.
Ikeda suffered throughout his youth from tuberculosis, a deadly disease at the time. He writes fondly of his memories of listening, exhausted from work and illness, to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, known as the "Destiny" or "Fate" symphony. "As I sat in the middle of my tiny apartment, with the stirring resonance of that great work filling the room, I felt my blood race and dance with joy . . . a powerful courage resurged in my heart."3
He listened to these recordings so often, he says, that the disks eventually wore out. "I had only an old hand-cranked phonograph that I had managed to buy with what little money I could scrape together. The quality of the sound was terrible compared to today's technology, but the music communicated from heart to heart. The rhythms of that musical genius's life stirred my spirit with overpowering immediacy. My humble one-room apartment became at that moment a palace of the most glorious art."4
Ikeda, then a young leader within the Soka Gakkai, would also invite other members in the organization to his apartment to share in the revitalizing effects of this music.
The power of art to revive our humanity is what has inspired Ikeda to seek ways to bring great art into the lives of people through initiatives such as the Min-On Concert Association and the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum.
"The institutions of society tend to treat us as parts in a machine," he writes. "They assign us ranks and place considerable pressure upon us to fulfill our defined roles. We need something to help us restore our lost and distorted humanity . . . We have a voiceless cry resting in the depths of our souls, waiting for expression. Art gives those feelings voice and form."5
Literary works that Ikeda studied during his youth under his mentor, Josei Toda
Literature was another great source of refuge and inspiration for Ikeda. He read widely and avidly, saving up his money to buy translations of the great literary masters and philosophers. His earliest aspirations were to be a writer, and one of his first jobs after leaving home was as a magazine editor in the company of his mentor Josei Toda.
In this excerpt from one of Ikeda's essays one has a sense of how, amidst the arduous life of wartime Tokyo, his budding poetic and literary sensibilities brought him relief and a sense of connection: "In those days, even cherry trees were made into symbols of death. The Japanese people were told to be like cherry blossoms, to scatter courageously in the wind without a whisper of regret. But the cherry trees before me clearly rejected such perversion and spoke to me--powerfully, sublimely--of life. They were overflowing with hope. 'Live! Live fully and deeply! Never cease living! Outlive the winter and let your own unique nature bloom,' they said to me. Powerful emotions welled up and filled my heart. On the wall of a burnt-out factory building I used a piece of chalk to write a passage from a poem that I composed . . . I didn't bother signing my poem, but later I saw that others who shared my feelings had written their thoughts below mine on the wall."6
Ikeda describes the writers that he read in his youth as close friends with whom he would engage in lengthy conversations. One sees in his approach to literature--his writings about it and his strong advocacy among youth of the SGI and students of the Soka school system of reading classic works--a cherished sense of the value made possible by communion through literature, of great minds speaking through time, illuminating the intricacies of life and the human spirit and inspiring and guiding successive generations.