Showing posts tagged death

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

W. S. Merwin, “Thanks

The awareness of small things
“Since trusting to life must finally mean making peace with death, I perform some mild chöd of my own, forcing myself to look over the precipice whenever I can manage it. The going in the weeks ahead is bound to worsen, and hardening myself might make less scary some evil stretch of ledge in the higher mountains. It helps to pay minute attention to details—a shard of rose quartz, a cinnamon fern with spores, a companionable amount of pony dung. When one pays attention to the present, there is great pleasure in the awareness of small things; I think of the comfort I took yesterday in the thin bouillon and stale biscuits that shy Dawa brought to my leaking tent.”
— from The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
(Photograph: Cinnamon fern fiddlehead unfurling, 2012, by Brian Kermath. Thank you, Mr. Kermath and Digital Photography Review.)

The awareness of small things

“Since trusting to life must finally mean making peace with death, I perform some mild chöd of my own, forcing myself to look over the precipice whenever I can manage it. The going in the weeks ahead is bound to worsen, and hardening myself might make less scary some evil stretch of ledge in the higher mountains. It helps to pay minute attention to details—a shard of rose quartz, a cinnamon fern with spores, a companionable amount of pony dung. When one pays attention to the present, there is great pleasure in the awareness of small things; I think of the comfort I took yesterday in the thin bouillon and stale biscuits that shy Dawa brought to my leaking tent.”

— from The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

(Photograph: Cinnamon fern fiddlehead unfurling, 2012, by Brian Kermath. Thank you, Mr. Kermath and Digital Photography Review.)

As if it were the only thing

“One piece of advice that Don Juan gave to Carlos Castañeda was to do everything as if it were the only thing in the world that mattered, while all the time knowing that it doesn’t matter at all.” That’s from page 112 of When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. I bought the book on New Year’s Day 2003 and finished reading it three months later. I had since tried often to get back to that sentence, but I just couldn’t find it. I had begun thinking perhaps I read it somewhere else. But today, this Sunday morning, when I finally got out of bed, there it was. I pulled the book from a shelf, opened it to a random page, and found what I thought I had lost forever. What did it matter that I couldn’t find the exact page or the original sentence? Wouldn’t it have been enough that I remembered what it meant? Is it any comfort that there are still things I believe to be random?

Yes, Sunday morning. I woke up thinking of three deaths. Last week, a friend told me her cousin had recently committed suicide. He jumped off a building. He was 52. He had been depressed, but the last time my friend saw him, he seemed to be recovering through medication and psychotherapy. She wondered if there was anything more she could have done to prevent the tragedy. He was such a gentle and kind man. Last night, I got a text message from another friend saying her three-year-old niece had died of pneumonia: “Please pray for her soul.” My friend says this is the time for her to believe in “a god because I need the assurance she is now happy and carefree with him.” This morning, waking up, I didn’t feel like getting up. Instead, I took The Snow Leopard from my bedside table and got back to reading random pages. I found this on page 307: “Then the sun is gone, the journey is done, the new moon rises.” That took me back to earlier parts I had read in which Peter Matthiessen writes about his wife, Deborah Love, who died of cancer in 1972. The following year, he went on a journey (with field biologist George Schaller) to the Himalayan mountains in Nepal. The book is his travel journal of those two months.

The book has been in my backpack now for that same length of time. I take it with me when I go out of the house. I dip into any part I want. I skip pages, reread others, scribble notes in margins. Before work begins, when it’s over, as daydreaming resumes, between visits to other worlds in other books—I’ve been with The Snow Leopard. And I hope to be with it till the end of this month. I’ve given myself a deadline: finish the book by June 29, the second anniversary of this blog. The timeline gives me something to work on. Not that I lack things to do or worry about. At my age, I can safely say that things affect me or they don’t (whatever that means). But sometimes I still need some sense of urgency to keep me going. Not that I’m in a hurry, either. As Matthiessen and Saul Leiter would agree, why hurry? On taking pictures, Leiter said: “Of course, I don’t know that I’m going to get what I’m going to get. It takes time.” I don’t know that I’m going to finish this book by June 29, in the same way that I didn’t know this blog would last this long. Perhaps without realizing it, I’ve taken Don Juan’s advice to heart. I’ve been posting words and pictures here, I’ve been sticking around, as if it were the only thing that mattered. Yes, as if.

The Snow Leopard is many things all at once. It is a great adventure story, a timeless plea to protect nature, a lucid introduction to Zen Buddhism, an interfaith appreciation of all that is sacred and mysterious in life and death, a vivid tapestry of journalism, anthropology, and memoir. Most of all, I see it as one man’s struggle to stay alive, sane, and grateful amid the daunting physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual tasks he has set for himself. Matthiessen promised his eight-year-old son that he’d be home by Thanksgiving. And he wanted to see the snow leopard, that rare, elusive creature living in those mountains. He didn’t achieve either of those goals despite his persistence or endurance. Near the end of his journey, he thinks nothing has changed: “I am still beset by the same old lusts and ego and emotions, the endless nagging details and irritations—that aching gap between what I know and who I am.”

Sometimes despite our best efforts and fervent prayers, we are left with no clear answers, with things falling apart. Words fail, people die, journeys end, gaps remain. Matthiessen wrote: “Maybe it’s better if there are some things that we don’t see.” Leiter said: “I like it when one is not certain what one sees.” It’s the confusion, the mystery, the trying-to-see that mattered to him as a photographer. I know what they were getting at, but even if I do finish reading The Snow Leopard, I doubt I’ll ever have its author’s clarity or equanimity as he came to terms with the death of his wife. At a certain point, he realized that “nothing was needed, nothing missing, all was already, always, and forever known, that D’s death, even that, was as it should be.” Would I even remember those words weeks or years from now? Would it still matter to me that somebody felt that way and wrote about it in the clearest way he could?

Matthiessen remembered this much: “In those last months, it seemed that love had always been there, shining through the turbulence of waves, like the reflection of the moon in the Zen teachings; and love transformed the cruel and horrid face that cancer gives to death. One day, knowing she was dying, D remarked, ‘Isn’t it queer? This is one of the happiest times in all my life.’ And another day, she asked me shyly what would happen if she should have a miraculous recovery—would we love each other still, and stay together, or would the old problems rise again to spoil things as before? I didn’t know, and that is what I said. We had tried to be honest, and anyway, D would not have been fooled. I shrugged unhappily, she winced, then we both laughed. In that moment, at least, we really understood that it didn’t matter, not because she was going to die but because all truth that mattered was here and now.”

A terrific struggle

“Why is death so much on my mind when I do not feel I am afraid of it?—the dying, yes, especially in cold (hence the oppression brought by this north wind down off the glaciers, and by the cold chop on the cold lake), but not the state itself. And yet I cling—to what? What am I to make of these waves of timidity, this hope of continuity, when at other moments I feel free as the bharal [blue sheep] on those heights, ready for wolf and snow leopard alike? I must be careful, that is true, for I have young children with no mother, and much work to finish; but these aren’t honest reasons, past a point. Between clinging and letting go, I feel a terrific struggle. This is a fine chance to let go, to ‘win my life by losing it,’ which means not recklessness but acceptance, not passivity but nonattachment.”

— from The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

(Painting: Sol 5 – Studie, 2013, by Conrad Jon Godly. Thank you, Mr. Godly and Fubiz.)


A dream of falling
“Coming down, coming down—a dream of falling, in a machine no longer in control. I manage my panic with deep breaths, go so far as to wish my fellow passengers good luck. At the point of crash, there comes a cosmic ringing, and, lulled by river sounds, I wonder if I am dead; I feel half in and half out of my body, fighting free, yet not ready to go.”
— from The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
(Photograph by Hengki Koentjoro. Thank you, Mr. Koentjoro and Katrina Kocialkowska.)

A dream of falling

“Coming down, coming down—a dream of falling, in a machine no longer in control. I manage my panic with deep breaths, go so far as to wish my fellow passengers good luck. At the point of crash, there comes a cosmic ringing, and, lulled by river sounds, I wonder if I am dead; I feel half in and half out of my body, fighting free, yet not ready to go.”

— from The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

(Photograph by Hengki Koentjoro. Thank you, Mr. Koentjoro and Katrina Kocialkowska.)

You would hold your breath

“… put yourself in my place. Call to mind a person you’ve lost that you will miss to the end of your days, and then imagine happening upon that person out in public. You see your long-dead father sauntering ahead with his hands in his pockets. Or you hear your mother behind you calling, ‘Honey?’ Or your little brother who fell through the ice the winter he was six, let’s say, passes by with his smell of menthol cough drops and damp mittens. You wouldn’t question your sanity, because you couldn’t bear to think this wasn’t real. And you certainly wouldn’t demand explanations or alert anybody nearby, or reach out to this person, not even if you’d been feeling that one touch was worth giving up everything for. You would hold your breath. You would keep as still as possible. You would will your loved one not to go away again.”

— from The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

(Photograph: Eleanor and Barbara, Chicago, 1953, by Harry Callahan. Thank you, Masters of Photography.)

Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014)
“Florentino always kept the notebook in which his father wrote love poems, some of them inspired by Tránsito Ariza, its pages decorated with drawings of broken hearts. Two things surprised him. One was the character of his father’s handwriting, identical to his own although he had chosen his because it was the one he liked best of the many he saw in a manual. The other was finding a sentence that he thought he had composed but that his father had written in the notebook  long before he was born: The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.”

— from Love in the Time of Cholera
(Photograph by Ben Martin. Thank you, Mr. Martin and Vogue.)

Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014)

“Florentino always kept the notebook in which his father wrote love poems, some of them inspired by Tránsito Ariza, its pages decorated with drawings of broken hearts. Two things surprised him. One was the character of his father’s handwriting, identical to his own although he had chosen his because it was the one he liked best of the many he saw in a manual. The other was finding a sentence that he thought he had composed but that his father had written in the notebook  long before he was born: The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love.”

— from Love in the Time of Cholera

(Photograph by Ben Martin. Thank you, Mr. Martin and Vogue.)

Illumination

“The final bridge you cross before coming to the mausoleum is called the Bridge of Ignorance, because it is believed that when you issue forth into the vicinity of Kobo Daishi, you are in a world of illumination. Two lights in the Hall of Lanterns are said to have been burning continuously for almost a thousand years, and the very presence of light is all the more potent for the crowding dark all around. ‘When you are living in a world of typhoon, of fire and lightning,’ the Swiss monk had told me (Koyasan has been assaulted at least four times by major fires), ‘you are living in the second. You don’t wait for anything. You go out and use the day right now.’ ”

Pico Iyer, from “The Magic Mountain” (originally published in Condé Nast Traveler), in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008

(Photograph: Six Lanterns, Garan, Koyasan, Japan, 2003, by Michael Kenna. Thank you, Mr. Kenna and Condé Nast Traveler.)

Living

by Jason Shinder

Just when it seemed my mother couldn’t bear

one more needle, one more insane orange pill,
my sister, in silence, stood at the end

of the bed and slowly rubbed her feet,

which were scratchy with hard, yellow skin,
and dirt cramped beneath the broken nails,

which changed nothing in time except

the way my mother was lost in it for a while
as if with a kind of relief that doesn’t relieve.

And then, with her eyes closed, my mother said

the one or two words the living have for gratefulness,
which is a kind of forgetting, with a sense

of what it means to be alive long enough

to love someone. Thank you, she said. As for me,
I didn’t care how her voice suddenly seemed low

and kind, or what failures and triumphs

of the body and spirit brought her to that point—
just that it sounded like hope, stupid hope.

— from The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008 (originally published in The New Yorker)

image

[“Living” is included in Jason Shinder’s posthumous collection of poems, Stupid Hope (Graywolf Press, 2009). According to David L. Ulin of the L.A. Times, “many of these poems were composed while Shinder was battling lymphoma and leukemia. (He died in April 2008 at age 52.)” Thank you, HealthCetera, for the photo.]

“The ancient masters slept without dreams and woke up without worries. Their food was plain. Their breath came from deep inside them. They didn’t cling to life, weren’t anxious about death. They emerged without desire and reentered without resistance. They came easily; they went easily. They didn’t forget where they came from; they didn’t ask where they were going. They took everything as it came, gladly, and walked into death without fear. They accepted life as a gift, and they handed it back gratefully.”

Chuang Tzu

And then you walk fearlessly

“I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please,’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks. Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.”

Annie Dillard, from the final chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

(Photograph: Untitled, 2009, by James Wainwright. Thank you, Mr. Wainwright and Flickr.)

William Barrett: “That is why I weep”

… (in the last anecdote of his book) [William Barrett] tells how he broke down and wept at the spectacle of Delmore Schwartz reduced to his terminal dementia, wildly bellowing and raving. Barrett recounts this awful incident without wasting a word, contemplates the shattered young man he was and concludes: “There crossed my mind the ancient story of the father weeping for a dead child. A stoic philosopher, passing by, tells the father: Why do you weep? It is irrational. Your weeping will not bring him back to life. The father replies: That is why I weep, because it cannot bring him back!” So it is his present persona, Professor Barrett, who recollects and (as the existentialists like to say) assumes his emotion. The mature man has the final word.

— from “The American Intellectual Vocation” (a review of William Barrett’s memoir, The Truants: Adventures among the Intellectuals) by H. J. Kaplan (National Affairs)

His envisaged death

“… The world is not intolerable until the possibility of transforming it exists but is denied. The social forces historically capable of bringing about the transformation are – at least in general terms – defined. Guevara chose to identify himself with these forces. In doing so he was not submitting to so-called ‘laws’ of history but to the historical nature of his own existence.

“His envisaged death is no longer the measure of a servant’s loyalty, nor the inevitable end of an heroic tragedy. The eye of death’s needle has been closed – there is nothing to thread through it, not even a future (unknown) historical judgement. Provided that he makes no transcendental appeal and provided that he acts out of the maximum possible consciousness of what is knowable to him, his envisaged death has become the measure of the parity which can now exist between the self and the world: it is the measure of his total commitment and his total independence.”

John Berger on Che Guevara’s death, from The Look of Things

(Photograph by Freddy Alborta: Che Guevara’s corpse in the laundry room of the Vallegrande hospital, Bolivia, on October 10, 1967. Thank you, NPR.)

“I may not believe in life after death, but what a gift it is to be alive now.”

Natalie Angier

Philip Connors on Norman Maclean: “A lifetime of questions”

About once a year I still reach for my dog-eared copy of A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, and it never loses its power or its mystery. No other book I know has more evangelists, as it would have to, being a collection of two novellas and a story published by a university press, and now with beyond a million copies in print. My deep connection with the book—with the leisurely rhythms of the sentences, which matched the rhythms of my childhood spent fishing with my brother—had already blurred the distinction between life and literature, although of course I never suspected the book would one day prove prophetic. But it did twelve years ago, when, just as Norman [Maclean] loses his brother Paul to a violent death, a brother he loved but did not understand and could not help, I lost my own brother, at the age of 22, to a suicide with a semiautomatic rifle.

I’m not sure any sense can be made of his action, and anyway the details are not my concern here. But I do often find myself in the same position as Norman and his father, asking unanswerable questions, searching for something, some bit of redeeming truth to reckon with. There is a scene near the end of the title novella, in which the two of them talk about their son and brother.

“Do you think I could have helped him?” Norman’s father asks.

“Do you think I could have helped him?” Norman answers.

They stand silently, each of them waiting for an answer they know will never come.

 “How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?” Norman wonders.

— from “A Tough Flower Girl: On Norman Maclean” by Philip Connors (The Nation)