Agenda: Newton, Kansas, my hometown.
Nightstand: Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, and Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems, Volume 1.
Playlist: ‘Contemplating Mortality,’ an interview between Krista Tippett and Ira Byock.
YouTube: The mad genius Vi Hart, with her monologues and doodling. She makes everything seem possible and the connections in life stretch toward infinity.
Chronicle of Unanswered Questions: Why—when people mistake me for my sister on the streets of Newton, Kansas—when they even hug me, thinking I am her—why, after all these years, do I still not correct them?
Camera: Iconic photos of Kansas—all dried grasses and big sky and seeing forever.
Lap: My great-nephew Ben, 4 months old, named after my father. And on my right, my great-uncle Roland, 94 years old. The three of us spanning five generations in no more than the space of a yard. Our lives curling around and bumping up against so many other lives that not even Vi Hart could do justice to the overlays and connections of them all.
Mind: The life we all share.
I was reading Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away fifteen days ago, when I received the call that my father was dying. Racing to get the next flight to Kansas, I fumbled in my bag for something to read, and again found it. I continued reading that story with its countless allusions to fairytales and death, and when I finished, I found myself thinking about Bruno Bettelheim and his work on the meaning and importance of fairytales. In particular, I thought about the way in which fairytales are told to represent the common experience, but also the way in which death is not the end of the tale, but is just one of several essential parts of the story—and of life.
Hmm. That made me pause. Because when I first received the news about my father, I had closed up and gone into complete emotional lock down. Fear was the ruling emotion. This was the End. My gut reaction was not to tell anyone—as if not speaking the words would make it not true. But thinking about my family, I did speak the words.
I was stunned—truly bowled over—by the wisdom and support that cascaded in. Among these, I was strongly affected by Louise Hawes’ insight that hard times need open hearts. At the same time, Patrick Griffin Downes forwarded me ‘Contemplating Mortality,’ where Ira Byock says essentially the same thing. When faced with death, we have a choice to protect ourselves, out of fear, or keep our hearts open and become the richer for it. I paused again, opened my heart, and kept it open, even when I learned my father had died.
Well, walking close to the edge of life may be a natural part of living, full of unanticipated beauty and love, but for those facing it for the first time, it is strange and unfamiliar territory. As Krista Tippett pointed out to Ira Byock, being a newcomer to death is much like being a newcomer to birth—the other edge of life—where every minute brings a never-before-faced experience. My awareness was thrown wide open and each act seemed heavy with importance. Yet, at the same time I couldn’t shake the sense of being very small, that I was going through what millions have gone through before and millions will yet go through. In the words of Byock, what was happening to me seemed ‘utterly insignificant and yet infinitely meaningful.’
This meaning had been honored and reflected in every card and pot of chili and bouquet of flowers my family received. Yes, my father’s death brought shock and sadness and a sort of thickness that slows everything down, but it also brought amazement at the graciousness and deep, fearless honesty of others who have lost a parent. It focused my attention on what my father loved best in the last years of his life—the bliss of being with others and the simple delight of watching a full moon or the wind at play with a tree.
And really, this is what Far Far Away and Bettelheim’s fairytales do for us as well. Although they are full of death and difficult challenges, at their core they are optimistic and believers in the essential beauty of embracing life. Hard times, even easy times, need open hearts. And so, I have pledged to myself to redouble my efforts to value the truly important. Let me revel in the splendor of nature and humanity. Let me echo Mary Oliver, because ‘When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement, I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.’
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Mary Oliver’s words come from ‘When Death Comes,’ which is included in New and Selected Poems, Volume 1.
Be sure to stop by again on December 10, when Tim Wynne-Jones, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Winner & an Officer of The Order of Canada, will be joining us as our first What Was on His . . .