Making Arrangements


               Marshall Duke

                Department of Psychology. Emory University



One of my earliest memories that of the day that my grandfather passed away.  I can remember the scene: he was lying in bed with my mother and grandmother at his side, crying.   I was a seven year old who was scared out of his mind by the sight of those upon whom he leaned in s state of apparent emotional deterioration.   Much of what happened is now a blur, but as in so many of my childhood memories, a phrase stands out.  I heard it coming from the next room when it was over.  My father said to my mother in a soft but business =like manner, We have to make the arrangements.   While I am sure that this was not my first exposure t the phenomenon, this is my first real memory of language designed to cover and protect rather than to inform, language filled with non-meanings and pseudo-meanings, language meant to soften hard reality.  They did not speak of planning a funeral, we were to make arrangements.  This, I soon learned, as I sat feeling very scared on thestairway in the hallway of our two story New Jersey walk-up meant calling the people who “had to be called.”  The rabbi, the funeral parlor—in those times arrangements seem to have involved being viewed in a living room rather than an entire “home” as it is now.  My father made the calls.  My mother comforted my grandmother.  I pretended that I was OK—I did not need comfort—clearly the greatest pain was in the hearts of m mother and grandmother.  I listened to the conversation during which “the arrangements” were made.

There were many arrangements involved in the death of my grandfather-some were powerful because of their presence—some were powerful because of their absence.  The arrangement I saw of the people around his death bed was like a scene from a painting—I have seen many like it over the years.  It is an arrangement of family at the moment of death.   It has a specific form—no one teaches it to us.  We do not really practice it- We only arrange ourselves in that way a few times in our lives.  Yet we know where to go.  Each of us knows his or her part.  There are many such arrangements in our lives—sometimes, as at a wedding, there is someone to actually arrange us.  Most other times, no one tells us—much like a self-organizing system, we arrange ourselves.  This happened as we came in and sat at the table tonight—we achieved a balance at the table—no one directed us.  This happens when there is an event that many of us gather to see.  We arrange ourselves so that we can all get a good view.  There is a right to expect each one of us to know the arrangement.  If someone gets in front of us, we are allowed to ask them to move over—politely.  We arrange ourselves in our churches and synagogues.  We sit in specific places week after week, year after your.  We park in similar places day after day.


Is an arrangement something that is done to things or is it something that emerges because of circumstances.  To be sure a flower arrangement is planned and executed.  An arrangement of cookies on a tray at a party is planned and executed.  But are they planned and then executed or are they executed in the course of or the midst of planning.  It would seem that there might be a beginning plan, but with time and examination of each step, the plan will change and broaden.  The arrangement is as much as function of the cookies as it is of the person doing the arranging.   An arrangement may in fact not be an arrangement in the sense of some “plan”.  Rather it may be something that looks orderly—and in fact is orderly—but which in its origin, did not ever cry out for such order.    How many different ways could the same cookies be arranged on the same tray?  If n people were given the same set of cookies and asked to arrange them, what would be the probability that any two trays would be the same?  My guess old be that the chance would be very small—surely, so if there were a variety of cookie-types, but even if there were only one kind of cookie.  And what if one of thee arrangements were to have been prepared by someone who is kind and warm-hearted and good to animals and children and who has absolutely no sense of beauty and balance and whose cookie arrangement is absolutely horrible and ugly?  We would have to turn back to the kind of words that I referred to earlier—the ones which are inaccurate yet somehow proper to the moment.  We would say that the cookie arrangement is wonderful when we—and perhaps the arranger as ell—would feel   otherwise.  We would choose our words so that we would not cause or add to the pain of someone who does not deserve it.  We would arrange our words carefully. 

Arrangement matters.  It was the source of  the difference between Lori’s sentence “Where all are you from” and Where are you all from.”   When the arrangement is expected—familiar—we pay passive attention.  When it is odd, we take notice.  Why then do we want things to be arranged?  It would seem that the more they are organized according to specific rules, the less we pay attention to them.  But they cannot be totally disorganized either.  A small violation of a rule of sentence structure can be seen as a delightful departure from the expected.  A glaring error and we exchange delight for disquiet.   We need the arrangements if only to magnify the deviations  from them.   To arrange things is to set chaos at rest even for a moment—to arrange things is to give the impression of control—to arrange things is to give oneself and others the sense that all will be right—or can be right—with the world.  In the eyes of the seven year old that I was when my grandfather died, the so-called “arrangements” allowed me to believe that outside of my house—a place where sadness and/or  fear gripped us all--there was some order and someone who knew just what to do.  I think most of us live always with that belief—questionable as it is—that someone out there knows what we don’t and can handle what we can’t.  We could not live easily without it.   It is an arrangement between ourselves and our world and/or our God that no one taught us directly, but each of us has learned it and passed it on.


Session on Arrangements


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