Meditations on Mortality

sweet-william-barbara-moignard

Sweet William by Barbara Moignard

 

Springtimes have needed you.
And there are stars expecting you to notice them.
From out of the past, a wave rises to meet you
the way the strains of a violin
come through an open window
just as you walk by.

~ Rainer Rilke, from the First Duino Elegy

 

There was a graveyard I visited regularly with my grandparents as a child. My grandmother would go tend the graves of loved ones (possibly her parents) while I picked Sweet William in small bunches and put on the graves without flowers. I loved the delicate beauty of the petals, their velvety texture and intricate patterns. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to pick them from the edges of the cemetery and place them on graves that seemed lonely and untended. A child’s belief that putting something pretty there would make it all better.

The cemetery was a beautiful and peaceful place to me (other than the painful annoyance of the little sticky burs that always found a way into the side of my sandals or down into my sock). The quiet stillness enthralled me as a child before death or graves held any real meaning. Visiting the cemetery was one of my favorite things to do.

It’s been a long time since those cemetery visits – I turn 46 tomorrow and I was not even school age back then – but I can remember what it was like when death was just another word that meant nothing in my mind and heart. A grown-up word that made people sad and nothing more. My child self living free and joyful without the understanding of mortality.

 

^~^~^

 

I worked as a property-sales manager for a small local cemetery from 2003 to 2005. I was responsible for all facets of the business operation – designing advertising, making product sales, solving customer issues, meeting legal requirements, overseeing burials and entombments, and maintaining good relationships with the mortuaries and their staff. I took the job expecting to be “creeped-out.” I ended up loving the place and becoming friends with the clients we served and the morticians with whom I worked.

I listened to all the personal stories of my clients and attended every funeral service on our grounds. I was a quiet presence, standing nearby at graveside or sitting in the last row of a mausoleum service, listening and watching, making sure everything was as perfect and well orchestrated as it could be. This was the respect, the care we provided to those trusting us in their final rite of passage. Honoring that trust mattered deeply to me.

Two years in the death care industry gave me a new understanding of death and dying. It also provided a glimpse of the actual job of professional body disposal carried out by morticians and cemeterians. Overall, death care is a business much like any other, but there is a level of respect and compassion present in the workers that is seldom found elsewhere.

What did I learn?

At every burial there are people crying, but their tears come for a variety of reasons – as many due to regret and self recrimination as for love and loss.

 

^~^~^

 

Twenty-two days ago a harsh, burning pain developed in my left shoulder and armpit. A random “share” on Facebook with pictures of example breasts showing cancer signs sent me to the internet to look up my symptoms. What I found there terrified me into a hospital visit…

I was in the E.R. five days after the first symptoms appeared with a swollen left breast, a “mass” of unknown origins, and a great deal of searing pain. The diagnosis was Mastitis of unknown origin, and I was given high strength antibiotics and a referral to a local surgeon.

Today – the infection is gone, the swelling has diminished, and the pain is much duller. I go for a mammogram and ultrasound tomorrow to start the diagnostic process. I am hopeful that it is something small and easily solved, prayerful the word cancer will not apply to me. I’d like a little more time, please, to experience this thing called life.

 

^~^~^

 

My first thought was that out of all the panic scenarios and insane phobias I’ve imagined in my life, out of all the ways in which I have feared dying, the thought of possible breast cancer never even crossed my mind! How like life to throw something at you from left field!

My second thought was of not wanting to leave my husband, my children, my grandchildren. Worry that I needed to teach the kids more, maybe I haven’t prepared them as well as I should have, and a myriad other things having to do with all of them being okay or not.

My third thought was the shock of realization that I might soon take my last breath, that it could end so unexpectedly, the lights go dark, and thought – emotion – feeling – sentience just STOP.

Awareness becomes the split-second adrenaline rush of panic, fight-or-flight in a state of indecision, anxiety…and then quiet. Then, thoughts of all the stupid and important things you’ll miss: McDonalds pancakes, the way a breeze feels, the way your children call you mama, sun on your skin, books on the shelves you haven’t read yet, grandbabies in your lap, poems you’ve only half-finished, snuggling beside your husband at night, the dogs always underfoot, the projects still half-done and disorganized, you and you-you-the you that is the personal I-the I that has likes and dislikes, cares, loves, needs, gives, feels…. living.

Life in all its deep complexity. The small moments and the large that make up a life….that make up your very unique and personal life.

 

^~^~^

 

You recognize the fallacy – you have been living all this time as if you were immortal, but you are not. Your specific time here is finite. There will be a last day, one day.

Suddenly, so many daily things become unimportant. The core relationships in your life and the core things in your personality become everything all at once.

You realize you will not miss your job only your calling. You cannot justify money as a motivator for anything that matters only the hope, safety, opportunity it may buy.

You wonder at the speed of days, how they have passed you ticking like a rush of water over rapids. You reach to capture them, slow them, but they drip through your fingers and out of your hand. ~

 

 

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The Things We Don’t Know

Violence and Hope by Jim Coe

Violence and Hope by Jim Coe

“I think she is telling us what the great writers of the past have always wanted us to understand: that ignorance and terror are never far from possession of our hearts, and so at any time it may be over all of us, ‘like a ton of water,’ the things we don’t know.”  ~The Achievement of Gina Berriault, Richard Yates from The Tea Ceremony.

We live in a time of dead prophets. The voices speaking for Divinity, foretelling the future, advocating a better way, promoting positive change – these voices fall silent, no whispers remaining. It is a world stage filled with mediocre talent, all bit players without the charisma or talent of star players. America is mired in gridlock, players bitterly embattled, stifled by the all encompassing need for power.  The pendulum of time ticking away the days while the prophets remain silent. We are immersed in the things we don’t know, drowning in a river of partisanship, gulping the water of carnival theatrics.

I miss the prophets and the heroes, the actors who understood the significance of their performance, who recognized the crowds right to a good, fun-loving show. I miss people like JFK, who knew to keep his foibles under wrap, while extolling the valuable American virtues and respecting the realm of the otherworldly:

When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. ~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Poetry as the antidote to power, as a cleansing agent that brings clarity and truth of vision.  This perceptive recognition of the power and necessity of Other as a primary part of man’s existence and healthy development is a hallmark of the hero/leader personality. This is a thought process, a recognition lost to the people in political power. What congressman or senator has read poetry lately rather than analyzing soundbites? Has one voice found the sincerity and honesty necessary to compose a poem – could any one of our leaders write a speech or prophecy – that rang true and touched the emotions of an American readership?  How long will we be immobilized by men who lack vision, clarity, duty, and the ability to compromise?

An atmosphere of ignorance and terror hangs in the air like dense fog over the inlet swamps. Violence and rebellion simmer, the angry cry for justice and fairness grows louder across the different states and cultural boundaries. Ethnicity and income levels even out, become less important, as the strain of an inactive, reprobate government pulls at the fabric of our country. “We the people” is coming to mean something entirely different than ever before. The things we don’t know – the future we may face, the ignorance and terror that threatens to overwhelm us, the lack of action by our elected officials – the outcome we don’t know creates a fearful panic. What will it take? How can the problems be fixed? Is there an answer to the divisiveness overtaking our country? I am waiting for the Poets to tell me. I am listening.

A Poet Makes Himself

Orphee by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot

Orphee by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot

 

A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes all men: the great invalid, the great criminal, the great accursed—and the Supreme Scientist! For he attains the unknown! Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anyone! He attains the unknown, and, if demented, he finally loses the understanding of his visions, he will at least have seen them! So what if he is destroyed in his ecstatic flight through things unheard of, unnameable: other horrible workers will come; they will begin at the horizons where the first one has fallen!  ~Arthur Rimbaud