Not for Sale

All the signs in the tiny town of Fitzwilliam in New Hampshire had the same bold and unadorned lettering, whether for selling antiques, welcoming travelers to a bed and breakfast, or announcing an art exhibit in the library. Only a diminutive place like that could be so consistent across-the-board; I bet the town council vote that must have been behind the phenomenon. The art exhibit sign announced that the artist was Bill Barefoot. Who could pass up checking out an artist with a name like that? Besides, it was the only art show in this town of some four thousand people and I happened to be passing by during the small window of hours when the library was open. The paintings were relegated to the perfectly silent top floor, far far away from the auditory trails of murmuring patrons and of the children’s unedited voices below. I figured I would see something banal like nearby New Hampshire landscapes. They were landscapes, and they were from the area, but pleasing. And they were for sale.

As I came up to the front to leave a trace of my presence in the guestbook as evidence that someone that day cared enough to have a look, I noticed one painting to the left, marked, “NSF”—Not for Sale. It depicted the artist as an aging man hugging his likewise aging Collie to his chest. Mr. Barefoot’s hair was whitish grey, as was the dog’s fur. They must have been there for each other in many ways for a good long time. It was the best of the lot, but not for sale. Too bad, I thought, for no other painting drew me into its emotional field. What a teaser a NSF sign is! I wondered if the dog were no more. What was the artist remembering and feeling during the embrace and afterwards as he painted it? What was the dog experiencing? I wondered why he could not part from the piece, and I pondered other artists who have displayed artwork “NSF.” From what I remember, the ones not for sale were always the better works. Or is this just the phenomenon of forbidden, and therefore much more unavailable, fruit?

After signing the guestbook with the comment that “I felt the most emotionally drawn to your self-portrait of you and your dog,” I stood before it again. Maybe for Mr. Barefoot selling it would represent devaluing the meaning of the work, or that of his feelings for his dog, or feelings about ageing, or of whatever else ranked of high importance. Or perhaps he feared lest the buyer would not look upon it as he had but just as a “pretty painting.”

At times it must be hard for a graphic artist to part with an original. (We writers are so lucky. We can sell infinite copies of our books, like the “same” flame lighting candle after candle. The notion of an “original” for me is somewhat unintelligible anyways. I do not feel attached to how this post is stored on my hard drive before I put it online.) I imagine that if Mr. Barefoot were to part with that painting, it would symbolically be one way of parting with his dog, or with something—perhaps his unverbalized emotions about aging– that defines who he is. He would not be quite the same without that painting, like a dog suddenly missing one toe. When someone close to us dies or leaves us, we are no longer the same; we go on minus the interactions we had with them. That which we have lost is irretrievable, and no longer available at any price.

 

 

“Death Cafe”–Not Exactly a Last Supper

Before I knew what a “death cafe” referred to, I pictured a collection of skulls clacking away as they helped themselves to a buffet, with soft foods and liquids being the most favored by far. “Death cafe?” How could food and death be juxtapositioned? One of the leading graphics in an article that  unveiled the meaning of this phrase showed elegant blue and white dishware obediently standing in a holder. A skull took up the center of each plate, hogging all the blue, leaving the white to fill in the periphery. Written on the rim was “Bone appetit.” See that? I’m not the only one who thinks like I do.

“Death cafes” are part of a movement to break cultural taboos against openly discussing such topics as how we want to be remembered, how to bring up the subject of dying with loved ones and how we want our funerals to be conducted. The food part, making this subject a bit easier to swallow, usually consists of beverages and snacks.The very first death cafes began in 2004 and really took off in 2011. The organizers say that by now approximately one thousand people have attended them in countries such as England, Australia, the United States, and Italy.

My husband Steve and I, both of us curiosity seekers, went to a death cafe in someone’s home  the middle of this month. We helped ourselves to some snacks–the best one was guava paste and cheese spread on crackers–and waited our turn to answer the question of why we  were there. Many people said they were open to discussing it because they had lost a loved one at a tender age, or they themselves were young when someone very close to them had died. My answer was that I wanted to see what people were saying about this topic and that I thought I might get ideas for my blog posts. (See?)

We then had to complete the phrase, “Death is……” Naturally I said, “Death is at the edge.” I say naturally because my book title is “Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died” (Pen-L Publishing) Later when we broke into smaller groups, I said that when I contemplate this edge, it throws life, which is on the other side of that edge, into sharper relief.

I figured that I would have to forgo retrieving any humorous gems from this particular event, but luckily someone said, “Oh, I thought this event was called a “Death Cave.” “Death Cave?” Oh, is that where thoughts on death end up after we chew the fat? When Steve and I laughed about that on the way home, he said “that sounds like the Flintstones were going to host the event.” It’s about time. I never have ever heard Fred and Wilma  address the issue, have you?

For related article, see https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/death-cafes-home-of-the-death-deniers/