Saturday, February 14, 2015

who am I? I am your cake

The same assured willingness to believe that "I know who I am" seems to lose its footing when the question is asked, "who are you?" When challenged or assessed, the knowledge of who I am seems to depend on the story told in any current moment. Just now, I am 'x.' But wait! Now I am 'y.' And yet again, I am both/and or neither/nor. And still there is an assured voice whispering, "I know who I am."

Rivulets of thought put me on this frequency which may be observed as "juvenile" by the adults in any given audience.

A cousin's recent email observed

The most pathetic funeral I’ve ever attended was for a woman in a former church of mine. I didn’t know her, but her daughter sang in the choir with me. The priest hadn’t known the deceased, either, and the only thing he could scrape up to say about her was that people enjoyed her cakes.
The implication seemed to be that a deceased person would better be remembered for a wider litany of accomplishment -- actions and events that mourners could somehow sink their teeth into. But what is the matter with being remembered for your cakes? Is this really some lesser feat or praise than hiking the Appalachian Trail or inventing a better wheel? Isn't a good cake, one that brings delight to the tongue, really quite nice and worth remembering? Most people accomplish small things in life, many of which they cannot even remember themselves, let alone lodging in the memory of others.

If I cannot quite pin down who I am or was, how could some poor priest or funeral director or even endeared relative be expected to do better?

One of my favorite object lessons in the matter of assessing who I am resides is a YouTube video called "Thought Moments." It's really quite a simple documentary: The narrator poses ten questions to ordinary people. The questions range from "What is your name?" to "What do you love?" to "What is beautiful?" to "Why is the sky blue?" It sounds very simple for those who "know who I am" and it may seem simple when written down. But the looks on the respondents' faces, the long pauses and their searching eyes reach down inside a viewer like me. It's all very simple -- who is the I of which I am so assured? -- and yet endlessly complex and somehow jolting. The film seems to ask gently, "If you're so certain, why are you so uncertain?"

In Utah, the House recently passed a bill that would allow firing squads to carry out death sentences. As can be imagined, there were and remain strong opinions and both sides of the issue, which has yet to pass the Senate or receive the governor's signature. There is nothing like adjudicating death to bring out a strong sense of "who I am." Some culprits seem to deserve killing. Some not. But making a law about taking life draws all parties closer to a topic that is generally kept on the back, I-know-who-I-am burner. An actual piece of legislation puts the subject matter "in your face," a place that I who know who I am would prefer it not be put.

"I know who I am" is another of those don't-ask-don't-tell annoyances.

And yet sometimes -- though not habitually in a U.S. Congress that approves funding for the latest executions in faraway lands -- there are men and women who decide to address things squarely, even if the result may be unpleasant.

In 1939, Charles Monroe gave an interview to the Federal Writers Project. Monroe, of New Marlborough, Mass., was a mail clerk who was described as "not a man of wealth or education," but was considered, at 50, a leading member of his community and something of a philosopher:

I try to be a good citizen by performing certain public and personal duties which most of my friends would throw up their hands at if I suggested they perform along with me. In my opinion there's too much 'passing the buck' going on today. I don't like many of our laws - capital punishment, for instance - but since I'm a voter and a sustainer of our form of government, I of course automatically make myself as responsible as any other individual in the upholding of our laws. As a sort of an 'accessory to the fact' I once forced myself to attend an execution down in Sing Sing prison where my brother-in-law holds a good job. It was an ugly business. One witness fainted and another vomited, and it was a big relief to get out of there. I felt like the executioner myself, as I was partly, for the fact that we do not press the button or cut the rope doesn't let any of us off.
But if I can't convince you that I was a killer in that instance, you'll have to grant that I'm a killer of pigs and cattle, for I've often helped farmers butcher their live stock. I've done this to satisfy my own conscience, for I'm a meat eater, and being a meat-eater, why shouldn't I assist with the dirty work? You smile!

 At least Monroe, different from me or most members of the Congress that represents me, made an effort to look into the matter of "who I am."

Was he successful? Did he fail? I have no way of knowing. I do know that I admire him for putting on the front burner some of what generally remains unspoken and unaddressed. And perhaps, if nothing else, he came away from the experience with a greater sense of humility and honest perspective.

Death, of course, is a somewhat grisly eye-catcher of a topic. But how about the hundreds of other aspects of life, whether joyful or grisly, that swim like silver fish through any daily waters?

I know who I am?

There is no avoiding the question.

And, on a guess, I would say there is no way of answering it.

Perhaps I will bake a cake today.