"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Stopping For Death

" . . . there are some of whom there is no memory,
who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not existed,
as though they had not been born . . . " ~ Ecclesiasticus 44:9
20th Century Potter's Field
Sunnyside Cemetery ~ Caney, Kansas

This little person is unknown to me,
but I wanted to learn more about the inscription,
"usdi a da wehi" or "Little Whirlwind."


All Hallows Eve, All Saints, All Souls. With the Halloween Season in full swing, it seems timely that we stop and think of death for a few moments. But, as Jesse Bering so accurately observes, how can we, really? Perhaps the best way has always been in allegory, parable, or metaphor.
Why so many of us think our minds continue on after we die: Consider the rather startling fact that you will never know you have died. You may feel yourself slipping away, but it isn’t as though there will be a “you” around who is capable of ascertaining that, once all is said and done, it has actually happened. Just to remind you, you need a working cerebral cortex to harbor propositional knowledge of any sort, including the fact that you’ve died—and once you’ve died your brain is about as phenomenally generative as a head of lettuce. In a 2007 article published in the journal Synthese, University of Arizona philosopher Shaun Nichols puts it this way: “When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there’s an obstacle!”

from "Never Say Die: Why We Can't Imagine Death"
by Jesse Bering
in Scientific American, October 2008

The following poets have all settled on a transportation motif.

1. First, of course, is Emily Dickinson. For Dickinson, Death is a gentleman, driving a carriage, which holds just the two of them - and Immortality, though it's not clear what form Immortality takes:

Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

A little joke at the poet's expense:
Cartoon by Trashlands

2. Next is Harold Witt, who has composed a contemporary sonnet, echoing Dickinson's poem, but with a few shifts in the narrative. For Witt, Death is a an aging woman, a fading movie star with a "ghoulish grin," yet she seems every bit as polite -- "Darling . . . I've always felt that someday we would meet" -- as Dickinson's driver.

In Witt's poem, Death does not do her own driving but has a "skeletal driver," and her Rolls Royce keeps a faster pace than Dickinson's "Carriage" driver. When they turn up a cypress - lined driveway toward Death's mansion, we sense Eternity in the distance, as does Dickinsons's narrator, when she sees the "House" -- with "Roof" and "Cornice."

Sunset Boulevard
I wonder if death will come like a faded star
wrapped in fur and heavily made up,
her skeletal driver silent by the car.
"Darling, get in, we just thought we'd stop -- "
she'll say as he is opening the door
and with a ghoulish grin she pats the seat --
Even though we haven't met before
I've always felt that someday we would meet."
And then I'll hear the Rolls Royce softly purr,
whizzing past off ramps, and watch her bony hand
rolling with rings, a cigarette in a holder,
as she whispers of the films that she's been in,
and up the cypress driveway toward her mansion
I'll go cold against her colder shoulder.

Halloween Hearse

3. X.J. Kennedy puts Time behind the wheel, rather than Death and renders the reader powerless to halt the vehicle. The direction of the journey seems similar -- eternity, straight ahead -- but the destination, instead of a mansion, is an unceremonious abandonment along the roadside. Even Everyman is allowed to take Good Deeds to the grave with him, but Witt suggests otherwise:

For when time takes you out for a spin in his car
You'll be hard-pressed to stop him from going too far
And be left by the roadside, for all your good deeds . . .

from "In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day"
[see Comments Section below for full poem]

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, November 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Galaxy Will Manage

The September (Sunday night, 9 - 27 / 28 - 2015) Supermoon
aka Perigee Moon -- when the day of the Full Moon coincides with
the day when the Moon is nearest to Earth in its orbit.
Last month's Harvest Moon was the nearest, largest, brightest
Supermoon of the entire year

The various lunar events -- supermoons, eclipses, waxing, waning -- like so many things, are not ours to initiate or control. They belong to themselves, to the galaxy, to the universe. We can bear witness, record, describe. We can seek wisdom and gain understanding, not forgetting our role in the scheme of things (as aptly described in the Nature is Speaking videos by "Conservation International").

In his book Sabbath, community advocate Wayne Muller invites us to consider our world and our work in a larger perspective:
"Sabbath requires surrender . . . The old, wise Sabbath says: Stop now. . . . We stop because there are forces larger than we that take care of the universe, and while our efforts are important, necessary, and useful, they are not (nor are we) indispensable. The galaxy will somehow manage without us for this hour, this day, and so we are invited -- nay, commanded -- to relax, and enjoy our relative unimportance, our humble place at the table in a very large world. . . . [emphasis added]

We feel how large the universe is, and how small our labors. Our work is simply one offering among countless others that have come before and will come again, when all we have planted has been grown, harvested, eaten, and forgotten.

When we stop, we see that the world continues without us . . .

The world seduces us with an artificial urgency . . .

But Sabbath says, Be still. Stop. There is no rush to get to the end, because we are never finished. . . .

You are not going anywhere. Millions have done this before you, and millions will do it after you are gone."
Muller also quotes from the Holocaust Diary of Esther Hillesum:
"Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world."
See "Let It Be," 82 - 85 & "The Book of Hours," 88 - 90
in Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives
by Wayne Muller (b 1953)
Contemporary American author, speaker, and therapist

A humorous rendition of a very similar sentiment appears in the musical My Fair Lady, when Eliza Doolittle reminds Henry Higgins of his insignificance to the workings of the universe:

"Without You"
. . . No, my reverberating friend
You are not a beginning and the end

There'll be spring every year without you
England still will be here without you
There'll be fruit on the tree
And a shore by the sea
There'll be crumpets and tea without you

Art and music will thrive without you
Somehow Keats will survive without you
And there still will be rain on that plain down in Spain
Even that will remain without you, I can do without you

You, dear friend, who talk so well
You can go to Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire

They can still rule the land without you
Windsor Castle will stand without you
And without much ado we can
All muddle through without you

Without your pulling it the tide comes in
Without your twirling it, the Earth can spin
Without your pushing them, the clouds roll by
If they can do without you, ducky so can I
. . .

Lerner & Loewe

And yet again the point is made in the movie Birdman, which features an impassioned speech from a troubled, insightful daughter (portrayed by Emma Stone) to her confused, striving father (Michael Keaton) about the value (or not) of his life's endeavor:
"Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it."
Gerry often tells the parable of sticking your hand into a bucket of water and taking it out again, in order to gauge how much you might be missed when moving on from one workplace to another. I googled for background information only to discover pages of entries, all pointing to this poem:
The Indispensable Man
by Saxon N. White Kessinger

Sometime when you're feeling important;
Sometime when your ego's in bloom
Sometime when you take it for granted
You're the best qualified in the room,

Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that's remaining
Is a measure of how you will be missed.

You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you'll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example
Is do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There's no indispensable [woman or] man.
Well, now we know!

Indispensable? Perhaps not: "If you lie down, no one will die." Still, it would be nice to make a small dent of some kind, if nothing else, to leave this world a slightly better place than we found it, a modest goal.

~ September 27 / 28, 2015 ~
~ Night of the Total Eclipse ~ Super Blood Moon ~

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, October 28th

Between now and then, read Daniel's In Memoriam on
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading