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, "...life 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."