Monday, December 31, 2018

Not-so-cockeyed Optimist

As I grow older, I am appreciating my mother more and more. Among her many attributes, my mother was an inveterate optimist, to the point where I frequently found it very annoying. If a conversation became too depressing or contentious, she would immediately change the topic to something light. I remember my teenage self trying to persuade her that she wasn’t being realistic, that she was in denial about the world around her. To that, she replied that cute puppies were real too.

I came to understand that her optimism was a shield she had developed to survive in a world where she lost her mother at five years old, then was shuffled around from one relative to another. She never had a real home again until she married my father, but even then there was tragedy when her full-term first pregnancy ended with an empty crib. So, she avoided, as much as possible, what was unpleasant or distasteful, and lived to be a happy 96 years old.

I have been very blessed in my life, enduring none of the tragedies my mother did. Still, I am frequently disturbed by what I read and see going on in the world, and as I look at Facebook in the morning, I sometimes despair when I see the children caged at the border, read about the disappearing monarch butterflies, and hear more and more angry, hate-filled speech. I could go on and frequently do, but when I allow myself to wallow in the negative, I become enervated and unable to bring myself to any constructive action.
So, as an antidote, I watch crazy pet videos or James Cordon performing musicals with Lin Manuel Miranda and Emily Blunt. It’s not that I am unaware or uncaring, but I need to remind myself that there are things to smile about, that cute puppies are real too.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Pass it On or Pass Away

Kristin LeMay's book I Told My Soul to Sing:Finding God With Emily Dickinson is one of those books it may take me months to finish, as I read it a little at a time to allow myself to consider the big ideas she's discussing. And, as anyone who's read Dickinson's poetry knows, one of her big ideas is death.

In each chapter LeMay reflects on one of Dickinson's poems. In her discussion of "Behind me--Dips Eternity"  she says, "Yet rather than mourn that we are finite, Emily marvels here that for a few brief moments of this life, we participate in the infinite." Moments of infinity? Now there's something to ponder.

When I stop to think about my mortality, which is not often, I find it hard to imagine. After all, this consciousness in this physical form is all I have ever experienced. To imagine it ending, though logic tells me it absolutely will, is hard to wrap my mind around. 

It's as if having lived on an island all one's life, we are suddenly asked to consider that we must sail away to another place--far off, unknown, and unseen. We've seen others set off in their little boats, more and more every year, but we really never know where they're going or what the other destination is like.

When LeMay talks about moments of infinity, I think she's talking about brief glimpses we may see of it--moments when the veil seems to part and we catch sight, if only for a second, of a vaster, purer reality.

I think I caught a glimpse of that vastness when I was with my friend Jack when he died. I was sad, of course, but at the same time I was awed by the mystery I had just experienced. At one moment he was there; then the next he was not. His heart and lungs had stopped but he did not disappear  from my life. I still held onto his humor, his dedication to issues of human rights, his stories about his work as a campus cop, and his collection of Betty Grable paraphernalia. His body had stopped "being," but he will existed.

The finiteness of Jack or me or anyone is merely the flesh and bone that confines us. The rest--the love we've shared, the laughs we've engendered, the friendships we've kept--those do not die. Even as those who are left with the memories of the deceased die off, something goes on.

I have tried with my family and friends and students to pass on the love that my parents gave me. I know that some of that will be passed on to others. In that way, we do not pass away, but we pass it on.

As LeMay says, " does not end in ashes to ashes and dust to dust, 1830-1886. Instead it moves as a poem does, from miracle to miracle, mystery to mystery."