Earlier I wrote a post about coffins:
Before the pandemic arrived, I had begun building a coffin with my friend Ted not because I’m dying but because, as my daughter put it, Dad’s not afraid of dying. Truthfully, Dad is a bit afraid, but he displays his fear by defying death. Dad is self-inoculating, staving off death by courting it. Building a coffin is like getting a flu shot; a bit of dead virus will keep away the real virus. A death rehearsal could stave off the full enactment.from a post on April 8, 2020
Built in a small basement shop, my coffin shrank from 6’ 2” (the standard size) to 3’. The box was redefined several times: cat coffin, dog coffin, pet coffin, model coffin, time capsule, cápsula del tiempo (in Spanish to honor an old friend).
At the beginning Ted and I were building coffins together. His coffin was to be rectangular with a sliding dovetail joint—no screw, no glue—perfect for a green burial. He’s a wood wizard. When he is not building here, he is building an outhouse for his hand-built cottage, nine hours north.
Soon we followed corona virus orders: stay home, keep your distance. Not being a WoodWiz like Ted, I failed repeatedly to get the joints of my coffin to fit. I was obsessed with the shape—no rectangles. The coffin had to be a wooden toe-pincher, not a time capsule made of stainless steel, plastic, or glass.
Occasionally, I’d put on a mask and gloves, then drive to Ted’s shop. Without his help, I’d still be failing.
After the toe-pincher was built, I tore it apart and re-built it twice.
One afternoon I was sanding the coffin in the driveway. People would stop, stare, and occasionally take pictures. A neighbor shouted in a friendly way across the street, “Ron, you’re spooking your neighbors.” I told him I was obsessed with the coffin shape. I answered his unasked question: yeah, yeah, too many cowboy movies. We talked about wood and polyurethane, then I loaned him my belt sander so he could refinish a kitchen table.
More days, more sanding, more neighborly conversations–some in tears. The stories often started with the coffin-shape but expanded to include miscarriages, aging relatives in nursing homes, friends dying of cancer. I now know more about my neighbors than I did after living here for thirty-three years.
More banging and clanging of pots and pans at 7:30 p.m. to encourage front line healthcare workers: “our heroes wear scrubs.” More conversations with family members. The coffin-shape spooked them too. Cailleah made a video in response. She’s always loved Halloween, but Dad’s coffin-making was a bit too close to home. He has underlying conditions (age being only one of them)… What if…Dad were to …?
I asked my son Bryn if he would record a harmonica improvisation. He responded by bringing me three improvs. He described the first as spacious; the second as manic; and the third as sci-fi. I was transported to lord-knows-where by the music, so I rebuilt the video around the three pieces of his music.
Rebuild the coffin; rebuild the video.
Bryn arrived for his birthday celebration with Tia, his new girlfriend. Susan and I hugged them both. We shouldn’t have, but we did.
Susan made Bryn a thunder cake from a recipe in a children’s book.
I drafted Bryn into doing the camerawork in the attic and invited Tia to witness her boyfriend’s clownish dad. The scenario: the coffin made, an old guy wearing a cowboy hat (indoors, where the sun don’t shine) selects objects, then revises his choices. The old man becomes a child playing with keepsakes and dolls in a sandbox with no sand. He touches, contemplates, improvises, divines, changes his mind, over and over again.
I encourage readers to feel sorry for Susan. She was subjected to draft after draft of the coffin, to draft after draft of the video about the making of this strange object. Her advice on the video, “Less Ron, more context.”
I asked what she would put in her time capsule. “It wouldn’t look like that–I can tell you. Mine would have to be a basket or a pot.” She points to a bean pot in the living room, given to us by Hugo at our wedding in 1984.
For Susan feelings lead; actions follow. For me, actions lead; feelings follow. Her emotional memory is long; mine is short. As I handled objects in the attic, feelings and memories would shake loose. I’m a tactile learner. Touch it and it talks. Touch it and it whispers. If I don’t touch, I’ll forget what the object means.
For a day or two I was going to dump the whole project. Burn the time capsule. Delete the video. Doubt, even shame, began to arise.
But I decided to trust my instincts, however clownishly stupid they were. William Blake whispered in my ear, “A fool who persists in his folly will become wise.” Although I’m no wiser, I have persisted.
The video isn’t quite of a ritual. It documents the performance of a ritual. It’s a ritual demo. There are lights. There is a camera. There is a witness.
Although it may not be obvious to untrained eyes, the temporal flow of the video is constantly shifting: slow motion, fast motion, regular motion. Some clips are stretched; others are shrunk. The camera shakes. There are no tripods in heaven or the sandbox.
While I was busy expanding and shrinking time for the video, I received a request from a science journalist. She wanted to know the bodily, mental, and social consequences of missing big rituals. She said she had no interest in personal or family rituals. Too bad, I said, they are the ones I know the most about. What is big, I asked? I said we could theorize about what rituals do when they happen, but I doubted we could theorize meaningfully about what rituals do not do if can’t enact them.
Since this is a Big Questions website, it’s worth listing the questions asked while making the time capsule (click the gold links to learn more):
1. Made from what? wood, clay, basket, titanium
2. What to put in it? memorabilia, messages, recordings, e-files, clippings (newspaper, hair, toenails)
3. How to use it? as a coffee table, as a bed for a pet, entomb it near a parking meter
4. Who opens it? spouse, kids, grand kids, friends, space creatures
5. When to open it? at death, 200 years from today, Halloween
6. Sealed with what? bee’s wax, pegs, screws, a kiss