On Monday a friend of Robin’s, a lady of 87 years, was perky and going through her regular routines and looking forward to Zoom Bible Study on Tuesday, but that evening she passed away. Quietly, no fuss, no drawn-out or painful rite of passage. Two eyes closed in the evening and the last chapter in her personal story on Earth was written.
As always the finality of death was shocking, even when it comes to someone at that stage of her life. You can’t shuffle off this mortal coil at 87 without disturbing everybody you know, not even then. Her friends weren’t yet ready to say goodbye. For me it has always been that irreversibility, that complete resistance to petitioning, that refusal to listen to reason that has sometimes greatly pissed me off about death. The absolute lack of recourse.
Along came this piece by Margaret Renkl in Wednesday’s NYTimes, describing the role of poetry in helping people deal with hard places in life. This help comes at those times when we have run out of words to describe what is happening to us or how we feel. It comes when our own store of language fails us. Knowing that the poet could not have written what they did if they hadn’t seen what we are seeing. And if they survived, why, so might we.
I recall as a very young child overhearing my parents having a serious disagreement. Voices were raised and harsh words were exchanged. There were two things that were my takeaway that night. One was the terminally scary thought that mom and dad might separate and then where would I be? The other was that even while I was feeling so small and terrified, the people I could see through my window out there on the street were going about their own busy-ness, without a care for my troubles. How unfeeling they were! How unfair it all was.
If I’d had someone else’s words to lean on, I might not have felt so alone and powerless on that turbulent night. But hey, I was just a kid. Who writes tragic or even thoughtful poetry for six year-olds? Here is the huge advantage in being an adult. There are places to which we can turn for support, if we will. Poetry is one of those.
From The New Yorker
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Musée des Beaux Arts
by W.H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
We are off later this morning for a four-hour drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Camping there with the Hurley family. I’ve dusted off the camper, put the proper amount of air in its tires, and checked the supply boxes. The daytime weather is predicted to be good, but the nights are all scheduled to be below freezing so we’ll be wearing our socks to bed and bringing out Mr. Heater for those nights. I look forward to rolling up like a hedgehog in the bottom of my sleeping bag and wearing all of the clothes I brought. It’s one of those recurring situations in life that go like this –
“Why do you keep hitting yourself?”
“Because it feels so good when I stop.”
We’ve been to this park a couple of times, and if you’ve never been, it is pretty amazing. You drive along the highway and it is nothing but mountains and the lovely San Luis Valley and then all of a sudden – what the hey? – gigantic sand dunes, hundreds of feet high, piled up against those Sangre de Cristo mountains.
Be prepared … we may take photos.