"Shelagh would have thought this was stupid perfect"
July 3, 2012 1:06 AM   Subscribe

Shelagh was here - an ordinary, magical life: The Toronto Star dedicated unprecedented coverage to the funeral of 55-year-old Shelagh Gordon – interviewing more than 100 of her friends and family – to show how a modest life can have a huge impact. "She didn’t have a great job, she wasn’t married and never had children, so she wasn’t successful in either the traditional male or female sense, Ms. Porter said. But people would keep telling stories about her kindness. 'She had a lot of magic in her life, and that’s reassuring... That you can live a full, interesting, ordinary life.'" The link includes an extensive interactive photograph of stories from those at Shelagh's funeral, and a video with clips from the memorial as well. Via the NYT: Redefining Success and Celebrating the Unremarkable. (previously: you are not special)
posted by flex (17 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for this post. I've recently been reading Pride and Joy: The Lives and Passions of Women Without Children which, while interesting and somewhat inspiring for how I want my life to be, also can seem to be a little out of my league. Nearly all of the women featured are psychologists or have some other social impact job, involved with several volunteer organizations, have written books, and are the key speakers at lectures.

I like hearing of grand successes, but also of this small story I might not otherwise have known about, featuring a woman who made a difference to those she had actual contact with.
posted by DisreputableDog at 1:24 AM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

"I wonder if there is any room for the ordinary any more, for the child or teenager — or adult — who enjoys a pickup basketball game but is far from Olympic material, who will be a good citizen but won’t set the world on fire."
posted by flex at 1:47 AM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

  • posted by twoleftfeet at 2:00 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

    Along with the "don't be so busy" op-ed in the NYT the other day that occasioned a lot of comment here, these thoughts seem to indicate that at least some people in the culture are ready to start questioning the assumptions about status and significance and 'making it' that drove the gimme-gimme years of the 80s, 90s and oughts and start paying more attention to the small success that is a beautiful, satisfying and loving daily life.
    posted by Miko at 5:27 AM on July 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

    I really think that many people always are, Miko. The tragedy is that, in our current social and economic construct, it's inevitably rare for those people to end up with power.
    posted by howfar at 5:58 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Oh man, that made me cry.

    I remember being sixteen or seventeen and absolutely obsessed with the idea that I had to have a high-status job, like doctor, lawyer, therapist. I eventually hit on 'diplomat' because it was glamorous and because I knew you just had to pass a test to get a job- and the one thing I knew I was good at was passing tests. I had been in advanced learner classes since the third grade, and I was absolutely petrified at the idea of Not Succeeding. I thought it actually sounded a lot more fun to be a rootless bohemian artsy type, but there's no money in that, so it was never an option.

    I remember the exact moment when that began to change. We went on a family vacation to my dad's cousin's house, in a tiny town in Indiana. She and her husband were teachers- she taught special education. This, to me, meant that they hadn't 'made it' or 'done well for themselves'- they lived in a small town in a nowhere state and had low-paying, low-status jobs, and no kids. Poor guys.

    Then it turned out that they were absolutely amazing people. They'd just come back from a trip to India and gotten obsessed with Indian food, so they used their awesome kitchen to whip us up some delicious spiced carrot salad. A few of their many friends came by to help cook and play bocce and drink on the patio. She snuck me a beer and said 'don't tell your dad!' and talked to me like I was a person, even though I was still just a kid and we'd only just met. She was so kind, and fun, and funny, and nice. Her husband was the same, and he talked to my dad about music and rifled through his huge collection to burn CDs he thought we'd like. I still listen to some of them now. They told us about how, just for fun, they'd started booking bands they liked and now ran a little business booking shows- not a moneymaker, just something they did for fun.

    I caught a glimpse of their wall calendar- it was totally filled up with social engagements. We went all over town that week and everywhere we went, we ran into their friends.

    Something clicked for me on that vacation, and that was when I began my slow, slow journey towards shedding all the external expectations I had for myself, and trying (like it says in that article) to love life as it is. To focus on having a good life, rather than a cool-sounding job. These days I can't even recognize my old self. I'm so glad I met my cousin when I did.
    posted by showbiz_liz at 6:42 AM on July 3, 2012 [31 favorites]

    I really think that many people always are, Miko. The tragedy is that, in our current social and economic construct, it's inevitably rare for those people to end up with power.

    I don't think they really need power. I just think there are many more people who are in the middle - continually spinning wheels and burning fuel trying to be or achieve something that really isn't all that worthwhile, like a high income or a fancy title and perks that come hand-in-hand with the total annihilation of your private life, because pop culture really encourages this (because it's profitable). I know there are many people who do this wisely every day, but many more who could learn from it and go a different way. We exhaust ourselves. Not that this is anything new: time for Wordsworth:
    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    posted by Miko at 6:51 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

    Years ago, before they were trapped and gutted by whichever conglomerate is responsible for trapping and gutting what few local newspapers remain, the Baltimore Sun would every week run a long obituary for one of the many not-famous people who had died that week -- pipefitters, cab drivers, schoolteachers; men and women who many years past had done one newsworthy thing like saving a life or inventing a tool or climbing a mountain; people who had once been moderately or locally famous but for some reason (accidents, lawsuits, family) had dropped into obscurity decades ago; locals who Baltimoreans had seen every day but probably never sought out -- they would run a picture and give the subject top billing on the obit page, and it was wonderful to read a well-written, serious chronicle of an interesting, if obscure, life.

    This reminds me of those great Sun obits, but they lacked the self-conscious and overblown writing we see here. I applaud the intent and I found the story interesting, and perhaps I'm simply betraying my preference of news over feature writing, but I found the presentation a bit hard to take.

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention, flex. If the Star could make this a weekly thing and give it a little less of the purple, they'd have a great thing going. Also, Ms. Gordon sounds wonderful and I'm glad to have been able to celebrate her life this morning.
    posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 6:58 AM on July 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

    Wow, that interactive photo where each of the people at the funeral make a comment is quite amazing. What an interesting lady and moving article - her sister is correct, they sure did pick the right person. RIP Shelagh.
    posted by jamesonandwater at 7:15 AM on July 3, 2012

    Thanks, flex. The last paragraph of the NYT piece quotes this bit of George Eliot, from her "Middlemarch," a book that becomes wiser and wiser every time I re-read it:

    “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

    In memory of her loving, life-filled acts. Shelagh was here.
    posted by MonkeyToes at 7:15 AM on July 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

    Thanks. That made me happy (and a bit teary) to read. Definitely going to share.
    posted by cross_impact at 7:40 AM on July 3, 2012

    Man, are some of you going to hate what I'm about to say.

    While I'm sure Shelagh Gordon was a special human being, she was not in any sense "ordinary." She was selected because she represents the aspirational lifestyle of Toronto Star readers. She made Lawrence Park and Leaside her stomping grounds and got to tromp off to places like New Zealand as a wine professional. She was the type of upper middle class "black sheep" executive whose problems are framed not as barriers to social mobility, but as an unkind expulsion from the manor she was born to.

    Toronto's problem is that the city's media portrays people like Shelagh Gordon--as nice as she must have been!--as typical citizens. But they aren't. Toronto has actual working class and poor people in it, but the city is being increasingly governed under the assumption that the typical citizen is a member of the lower managerial gentry.
    posted by mobunited at 8:53 AM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

    I am in agreement with Mobunited. Shelagh Gordon sounds like an amazing person, and the obituary made me tear up a wee bit. But she was not an ordinary person by any means. I think it would be of more interest to do an obituary on somebody who wasn't necessarily loved by all, or extremely close to their family, or who and had an indifferent relationship with society.

    Orson Scott Card (while admittedly a obnoxious homophobe) created the concept fo the Speaker For The Dead. Per Wikipedia, "Speakers research the dead person's life and give a speech that attempts to speak for them, describing the person's life as he or she tried to live it. This speech is not given in order to persuade the audience to condemn or forgive the deceased, but rather a way to understand the person as a whole, including any flaws or misdeeds."

    I would like to see an ordinary person and an obituary that looked at their entire life. I think I would like that at my funeral.
    posted by jason says at 9:17 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

    Perhaps you might be interested in these "ordinary" and/or "forgotten life" obituary posts, previously on MeFi:

    *A Reminder that Every Life Matters
    *Dreams of a Life
    *"I didn't think anything was wrong, I never saw her anyway."
    *"...obituaries are about the juicy stuff of life..." is not necessarily about ordinary people, but there are links in the comments you may like: in particular, a link to CBC's The Late Show - "the extraordinary life stories of deceivingly ordinary Canadians".
    posted by flex at 10:00 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

    I think you guys have a point, but I think the framing of the article is to blame. I don't think the message here is "this lady was a perfectly typical woman"; rather, I think it's "you can have a happy life and be remembered fondly even if you never 'accomplish' anything". It sounds like this lady WAS exceptional, sure. And if this one journalist hadn't taken on this odd little project, we'd have never heard about her, because her brand of 'exceptional' isn't considered newsworthy.
    posted by showbiz_liz at 1:08 PM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

    As a single, childless, older woman, this gives me great solace.

    When I was younger I thought I would do great things. I had the raw materials to work with - not money or connected parents or inspiring role models, but intelligence and drive, for sure. While I am not unaccomplished, it hasn't really worked out that way (I'm not blaming anybody but myself, but patriarchy does deprive the world of a lot of talent - who knows what I could have done with some encouragement and equality of opportunity? I'm through losing sleep over it). Nobody is going to write my biography or even an in-depth obit like this one. And since I didn't have children, I didn't accomplish being a mother, either (no regrets) so no one will be affected very much by my own death.

    Lately I've been thinking about my life and what it has meant. I am coming to the realization that it's OK that I didn't set the world on fire in any way. Billions of good, decent, praiseworthy people have lived and died and not done that.

    I am not an a amazing person like Shelagh was, and I don't have as many friends. Maybe a few people think I am inspiring, as a woman who does live on her own terms - and that gives me pleasure. I've made a few lives better, for sure. It's probably enough to have lived and died and just made the world in your purview not any worse for it. That's what this post tells me, anyway.
    posted by caryatid at 9:03 PM on July 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

    Eight years ago as I key these words in, I was in the midst of the heart attack that killed me, eight years ago tomorrow morning, about ten after eight. I was sick, I couldn't catch my breath, I didn't know what was happening, apparently I got up a few times in the night and ate, trying to take the edge off of it.

    I died.

    I died in the truck of one of the coolest people I've ever known, on the way to the hospital. Bob. He's a great guy, Bob is, he's super-cool, another blue-collar yankee who got broken to bits and lived through it and now he's got this great wisdom, tucked relatively deep inside this sardonic sleeve he wears, that he learned to wear, had to wear, young, protective coloration. He got me to finally get moving but too late to not die -- it turns out stubbornness can be fatal, at least when carried to the lengths I carry it to.

    He still gives me shit about not getting into his truck when first he told me to. I still give him shit right back, telling him that it was his driving that did it, tell him "Hey, every time I get in your fucking truck I think I'm gonna die again." and he says he hopes that I do, except not in his truck, because when I died I respirated this nasty glop onto his front seat, sortof a death puke. I tell him that I don't believe that I did that, that he's just bullshitting to try to make some sort of horses ass point so I'll feel bad or something, but that if I *did* do it I'm glad that I did. Etc and etc. We have fun.

    And so I died, and amazingly was brought back, and I died again, and was brought back again, then once more, for fun, to keep them on their toes maybe. They used all the new technology that's available now -- these people truly are spectacular, I love them, I so admire them.

    I had to write all of that to write this -- I got to do what Tom Sawyer did, and Huck Finn, and Joe Harper -- I got to be at my own funeral. I got to see what would happen, who would show up, what they would say. Quite annoying to me that I don't remember any of it, as being dead as long as I was set me to being comatose for maybe four days, and then with no short-term memory at all, for at least another week, just like that guy in the movie Momento -- I have been told that I introduced my brother David to my friend Jimmy over a hundred times. "David!! Hey, what are you doing here? Hey, this is my buddy, Jimmy!" and on and on and on.

    Jimmy was the best friend I ever could possibly have asked for. He was amazing. What he did for me, and for my family -- there is no possible way I could ever repay him. He picked up my brother David at the airport that night, and was with him when first he saw me in the hospital, and I've been told it was something to see, and hit David hard, and Jimmy right there, comforting him -- imagine seeing your brother laid out like that, with those cold blankets on me, comatose, gray/green, dead in everything but except for the machines, and the doctors telling everyone no way I was going to make it. Jimmy was stellar, another blue-collar yankee, just like we are. Jimmy got David iinto my condo that night, picked him up next day, on and on.

    And as other family members hit town, Jimmy told them where to stay, and where not to, and where to eat, and where not to, on and on. An amazing friend, a spectacular person -- he was there at my funeral.

    And family -- holy shit! Two sisters and their husband drove down from yankeeland, David had flown in from Phoenix, my younger brother Daniel came in from San Diego. One of my best friends, Tina, flew in from Tucson, Alison was on the scene constantly, too.

    One of my friends had to be traffic coordinator, like an air traffic controller, telling who could come visit and when they could come; she was the clearinghouse of all my friends here in town, I think she had my cell phone and was getting calls and making them, setting it all up. I had people all over the country, then all over the world, praying for my ass. It was a friggin' zoo. It was spectacular. It was amazing. It was something else.

    I am loved.

    I have a book, my sister bought it, for people to sign in, sign out, say what they said. I treasure it.

    I am extraordinarily lucky.

    I can't really tell you all exactly why this is so. I have touched a lot of lives, that I know, I do give what I can, when I can, how I can. I've watched people love other people, and in fact been on the good side of an awfully lot of that, and I try to do what I saw them do, and see them do. It seems to me that giving to one another is the highest good that there is, it's the very best thing that we can aspire to, helping someone when they're lost and frightened -- so many people have loved me, if/when I've allowed them to. I'm a member of a community of sortof broken people, we find one another, then help one another stay afloat, one or another of us at any time might be in trouble but communally we keep on top of the water, or, rather, in it, but our heads out of it. As it were.

    I don't have kids -- that I know of; I did do the whole 70s thing, so hey, whatever -- and haven't been able to put together a wife thing, not one that's lasted, not for want of trying but not in the cards it seems, too bad for me. God was handing out long-lasting love, there when I was born; I thought it was long-lasting gloves, and I'm like "Who gives a fuck about gloves, anyways -- wtf?" and waved it on. Too bad. Bad hearing. It stings so much less, as the years have moved on, I still want it but it's not burning me so, not so much that I've channeled it or turned it but maybe rather that I've gotten inured to it. Or something. I don't guess I could keep on going on hurting about it like it did, long years of that, I guess maybe finally it just did burn through. No telling. I can tell it doesn't sting as bad.

    The not having kids part -- now that I've somewhat found my way, and not always floundering and foundering now, and able to look around more clearly -- I can see that missing out on children is a lot. My siblings have children, some of them, and now some of those children have children, and in watching these lives move I see Life Move and it's really interesting, and beautiful, too.

    So I mentor these younger guys, here in town, I'm lucky enough to be placed in a way that I can be close to these guys, one in his late 20s, two in their mid 30s, one in his early 40s. I love them, best I can; I wish I was lucky enough to have been their father, any of them -- these are great people. And none of them, in none of their lives was there a wise, super-loving Ward Cleaver father figure, these kids staggered around without much guidance or care -- in a word, love. I do what I can to love them, now, it's too late of course, that horse long left the barn but I try, I do what I can, I give them what has been given me, what I have found from other caring people, and am still finding. I cannot kid myself and I insist upon telling these kids that was I their father, I could not have been who I'd want to be, now; that had I been their father I'd have been a far more destructive force in their lives than their fathers were. I know that to be true, I saw what one brother did and I'm pretty sure I'd have done the same, or worse, had I been given children, even though I'd not wanted to do so.

    I'm 57 years old and I think that I could perhaps -- perhaps -- be a good father now. Looking around just now, I didn't notice any long lines of women all trying to jump in front of one another to pop out my kid, so I'm thinking it probably won't happen. Certainly not this morning.

    I tried to read Steppenwolf, maybe thirty years ago, maybe more, no telling. It was pretty thick for me, i couldn't do it, about the only thing that I took from it -- and it's plenty, too -- is a metaphor of humanity coming in waves, as waves to the beach. And most of us are inside the wave, or at the bottom of it, or gliding on the top of it maybe, and on almost every wave there is a cresting froth, tossed up, churned with the rest of the froth, it can be focused on, or seen, or something. And then that wave comes on in and that foam just ends up on the beach, it falls down into the wave and the whole show crashes down and recedes, and here comes another, followed by another, and on and on. That froth, those bits of water thrown into the sunlight to reflect and refract, these are the John Lennons, these are the Van Goghs, these are Joan of Arc, and Georgia O'Keefe, and the rest of the stars, the heros, the villians. But it's just water, all of us, it's just how it is.

    I got to watching that tiny desk concert of Adele again earlier today, I love her so goddamn much, she's so goddamn beautiful and so goddamn great and she's so goddamn normal and she's a kid, she's just a kid, she didn't plan it out, she didn't set out to Be Adele, she was just being Adele and things happened and there she is, cresting the wave. I'm sure she'd be the first to tell us that it's still just life, that along with the joys of celebrity comes lots of grief, too, she's walking this thing same as we are. Please don't misunderstand -- she's A Star, she is in the crest and belongs there. And I feel lucky to be in the wave at the same time she is, that I get to see her, to hear her sing, to long for her loins, etc and etc. But the wave is gonna take her, too, it's taking her now, same as it is me, and you. Is she more important than I am, than you are? No, I don't think so. Or maybe yeah, important, but is that the criteria by which to judge a life? Is there a criteria to judge a life?

    I remember hearing Alan Watts interviewed once, he was talking about sea shells, and how as he walked along picking up this one and then the next, well, hey, they're all sea shells. But yet in the sea shell world, that one shell may be looked at askance, might be that he's just a bit too fat to really be in the in crowd. Watts was laughing and laughing about it, how ridiculous it is, and how ridiculous people are, for those exact same reasons. If we could dolly back, take a longer view of people -- sea shells. We're all bozos on this bus.

    A favorite short story of mine is Libido and Life Lessons by Frank Moorhouse; the main character in this story is forty years old, and lust no longer falls on him like a savage animal out of a tree, and his lover asks him what's going on, and he tells her "well hey, I'm 40" and Belle asks "So, what is it like to be 40?" and Moorhouse writes a series of vignettes of what he's learned. And at the end of these is the kicker -- though most of them are great -- the kicker is that the character says that he's looking at his passport stamped for her and there and all his travels and all his living and his loves and his lusts yet he cannot tell if he has lived the very richest of lives or the very poorest. I just loved that; found a collection of Australian short stories somewhere or other and Moorhouse, he's just great, and that story in particular just lights me up. Great fun. And it's true, too, I think -- we are the last ones to be able to judge our lives. We'll color it this way or that way, better or worse maybe than it was, when in fact we're all of us same as sea shells, pretty small variations upon a theme. Or so it seems to me, 4:45 on my big death / life anniversary.

    I do go on.

    Love one another, hard as we can. And have fun, when we can, if we're not hurting anyone, and mostly we're not. This thing is fast, it's deep but it's awfully fast, see the art you want to see, tell the people that you love all about it,
    posted by dancestoblue at 2:59 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

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