Dancing with Death: Mortality in Cinema

Caravaggio, St. Jerome Writing, 1605-06

In the midst of life we are in death.

–– Burial Office, Book of Common Prayer

It is life that is the danger.

–– Pascal Garnier, C’est la Vie

 

Many of us are not accustomed to thinking about mortality on a daily basis. There’s no skull on my desk as I write. But the pandemic has changed a lot of things. A single sneeze or a stranger’s touch is now a memento mori. Death lurks everywhere––the supermarket, the subway, the street. Where can we go to flee from its presence?

While sheltering in place, I took a break from virtual choirs and amusing videos to screen a pair of films where death draws near during a pandemic: Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). In each film, death is an embodied figure to whom the protagonist is inseparably bound. However, for Bergman’s medieval knight death’s visage is terrible and stern, while for Visconti’s ailing artist the gaze of death is youthful and alluring.

Death (Bengt Ekerot) in The Seventh Seal

Tadzio (Björn Andresen) in Death in Venice.

The Seventh Seal takes place during the Black Death of the 14th century, when bubonic plague killed as many as 200 million people in just five years. Antonius Block is a knight who has just returned home from the Crusades only to find Death waiting for him there. Whether by war or by plague, the knight’s fate is inescapable. He is doomed no matter what he does. It is not accidental that this film was made in the wake of the Second World War, and in the shadow of nuclear annihilation.

Another medieval knight, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, blames God for the injustice of the human condition:

How is mankind more blessed by you
Than sheep who cower in the field?
For slain is man just like the beasts,
Locked in prison cages, and given sickness
And great adversity, often for no good reason.
What governance is in this prescience,
That thus torments guiltless innocence? [i]

But Bergman’s knight isn’t even sure God exists. Death appears to him, but not the Divine––at least not in any way he recognizes. Although Bergman was an atheist, believers will discern God in the traveling players: Jof, Mia and their baby, a “holy family” who embody the life force carrying on despite every mishap. God may also be seen in the sacrificial act of the knight, who helps the players escape Death even when he himself cannot. And in the sweetest moment of this anguished film, the family share their strawberries and milk with Block, who receives it like a sacrament, a taste of unconquerable life:

“I shall remember this hour of peace: the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk, Michael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And this will be a sign and a great content.”

 

Antonius Block, the knight (Max von Sydow), plays chess with death.

As Block makes his way toward the refuge of his castle stronghold, he sees Death at work everywhere, working furiously through both plague and human cruelty. The knight tries to postpone the inevitable by engaging Death in a chess match. Death is amused, but not outwitted. Always the supreme ironist, he lets the knight get all the way home before finally taking his life. No one gets out of here alive.

And yet, in the famous dance of death at the film’s end, six of the film’s characters are missing. The “holy family” still wander the earth, untroubled by death because they belong to grace. And three who died (a woman executed for witchcraft, Jof’s wife, and an enigmatic maid) are also absent from Death’s chorus line, perhaps because they had chosen acceptance over fear when their end came.

The Dance of Death in The Seventh Seal.

Death in Venice, adapted from Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, follows a German artist, Gustav von Aschenbach, to Venice, where he hopes to restore his health and sooth his nerves. In the book he is a writer, but Visconti makes him a composer, modeled after Gustav Mahler, whose Third and Fifth symphonies amplify the film’s luscious imagery and deep feeling.

While enjoying the Belle Epoque luxury of the Grand Hotel des Bains, Aschenbach becomes obsessed with the beauty of Tadzio, an adolescent boy on holiday from Poland with his family. Mann aestheticizes the composer’s forbidden desire into a metaphor for immortal beauty and perfection, comparing the boy to the finest Greek sculpture. But in the cinematic version, the explicitness of a visible gaze is hard to defuse with metaphorical rationalizations, and the film was indeed controversial when it came out fifty years ago.

But as I watched through quarantined eyes, I could not escape the idea of the comely boy as the angel of Death, drawing Aschenbach out of himself toward a kind of oblivion. For the artist, mortality means incompleteness. There is never enough time to reach perfection, to say everything that wants to be said. So Tadzio’s evanescent, unattainable beauty mocks the artist’s failure to find a lasting container for the longings of his heart.

The story’s title and content support this interpretation. Death––the sense of an ending––is everywhere in Venice. A plague of cholera is approaching from the east, and despite official assurances that everything is fine, tourists have begun to flee, leaving a kind of ghost city behind. Aschenbach’s heart is beginning to fail. And Venice itself, ever threatened by rising seas, suffers the melancholy of a diminishing future.

In the film’s final scene, Aschenbach is sitting in a beach chair, watching Tadzio wade into the bright sea beneath a declining sun. From a distance, the boy looks back at him, then points off toward a formless blur of light, as though only the infinite can receive the fullness of our longing. As Mann put it, “To rest in what is perfect (ideal, complete in itself) is the longing of those who strive for what is excellent, and is not nothingness itself a form of perfection?”[ii] If the angel of death mocks our incompleteness, does it not also invite us into an ultimate wholeness beyond our imagining, what Mann calls “an immensity full of promise?”[iii]

Tadzio points to “an immensity full of promise.”

We see Aschenbach struggle to stand up, reaching a desperate hand toward the sea, Tadzio, infinity, God. Then his heart fails; he falls back lifeless into the chair. Visconti then cuts to a long shot of the beach. Aschenbach is now barely noticeable on the wide expanse of sand. Hotel attendants carry his body away. What happens to him after that, God only knows.

When a monk composed the chant, Media vita in morte sumus (In the midst of life we are in death), it was on a New Year’s Eve early in the 14th century. Little did he know that a few decades later, a third to a half of Europe would perish in the Black Death. But I doubt he would have changed a word to sound more comforting. Whatever our fate––calamity or blessing––Death keeps us company every step of the way. Can we learn to live with that?

My friend Bill Coats, theologian and priest, recently wrote:

“It is hard for us not to put life first. We live longer, we are healthier, our medical system assumes and acts as if we can live forever. But a pandemic, even with a plethora of scientific and medical information is, in the last analysis, about death. Of course, in a pandemic not all will die, indeed the vast majority will live even if and when the virus strikes them. Yet the environment in the meantime is open to fear and is predicated on the nearness of death. Our generally optimistic culture is hardly prepared for this.”[iv]

 

Bengt Ekerot and Ingmar Bergman on the set of The Seventh Seal.

Death is near. It has always been so for mortals. We can’t change that fact, but perhaps it is time to rethink our relationship. I like this photo of Bergman talking with Death on the set of The Seventh Seal. They seem so companionable. No one is threatening, no one is afraid. They look like friends. Maybe it will be like that, in the end.

 

 

Related post: The Weight of These Sad Times

 

[i] Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Knight’s Tale,” 440-451, Canterbury Tales.

[ii] Thomas Mann, quoted in Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 174.

[iii] Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, trans. Clayton Koelb (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 63.

[iv] The Rev. William Coats, personal correspondence, March 2020.

The Weight of These Sad Times

The weight of these sad times we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

–– King Lear

 

When Queen Elizabeth I died in March, 1603, a plague was beginning to ravage London. By July a thousand were dying every week. A month later, the number was three thousand. By the end of the year, 15% of the city’s 200,000 inhabitants were dead. The epidemic would continue to ebb and flow in the city for the next few years.

The authorities did their best to enforce social distancing. Plays could only be performed when the death toll dropped below forty per week. Bear-baiting and other sports were banned. The infected were quarantined at home with guards sometimes posted at their doors. Caregivers who treated the sick had to carry red sticks in the streets so people could give them wide berth. Penalties for breaking quarantine were harsh: a whipping if you weren’t symptomatic, possible execution if you were. When people tried to wash away the red crosses marking the lintels of their infected houses, the Lord Mayor ordered the crosses to be painted with more indelible oil-based paints.

Dramatist and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker described the ordeal of being locked up in a house full of the dead and dying: “What an unmatchable torment were it for a man to be barred up every night in a vast silent charnel-house. . . Were not this an infernal prison?”[i] But such an eyewitness is rare. We have little firsthand reporting of what it was like to live with so much death.

Many plays were being written at this time, even with all the theater closings, but the plague was never their subject. Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro asks, “Was this because it was bad for business to remind playgoers packed into the theaters of the risks of transmitting disease or because a traumatized culture simply couldn’t deal with it?”[ii]

However, it seems no accident that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, his bleakest play, during the height of the epidemic, when the parish bells tolling across the street from his study were daily––sometimes hourly–– reminders of perpetual loss. The “weight of these sad times” was crushingly apparent in the play’s premiere before the royal court on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1606.

In the original story adapted by Shakespeare, Lear is restored to his throne and Cordelia lives. But when Shakespeare made it a tragedy, he went beyond the conventions of the genre, which tried to leave the audience with some sense of hope, as survivors made their exit into an implied future. But the very first version of King Lear concludes in utter negation. There is no exeunt into whatever comes next. “The play ends instead with the frozen tableau of the dead king holding his murdered daughter.”[iii]

The King James Version of the Bible, written around the same time as King Lear, begins with the making of the world ex nihilo, out of “nothing.” Shakespeare’s play supplies a grim counter thesis: the unmaking of the world. It begins with “Nothing can come out of nothing,” and ends with “Never. Never. Never. Never.” The word “no” is spoken over 120 times; “not” occurs twice that number. And around 60 of its words begin with “un-” (unfriended, unfortunate, unnatural, unmerciful, etc.). “Call it what you will––resistance, refusal, denial, rejection, repudiation––this insistent and almost apocalyptic negativity becomes a recurring drumbeat, the bass line of the play.”[iv]

The courtly audience, still reeling not only from the plague but also from the recent failed attempt to dynamite the royal family­­––and political stability––into oblivion, must have been deeply shaken by the play’s despair. A day earlier, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes had preached to the same court a Christmas homily on Christ’s light shining in the darkness (“Ever in dark times, who therefore most needed the light of comfort”[v]). But there were no such comfortable words in the royal theater on St. Stephen’s Day.

It did not take long for posterity to shape a happier text. Lear was granted the merciful delusion that Cordelia was still breathing when he himself died. The survivors were given their exeunt into some happy future, having learned useful lessons from Lear’s mistakes. And from 1631 until 1838, audiences were treated to a happy ending, with Lear surviving and a married Cordelia inheriting his throne.

The play’s darker themes were rediscovered by modernity. As critic Maynard Mack wrote in 1965, “After two world wars and Auschwitz, our sensibility is significantly more in touch than our grandparents’ was with the play’s jagged violence, its sadism, madness, and processional of deaths, its wild blends of levity and horror, selfishness and selflessness.”[vi]

In our own time of deadly contagion, how do we engage with the miasma of fear while the media death watch invades our awareness as incessantly as the tolling bells of Shakespeare’s London? Do we keep our eyes, like Lancelot Andrewes, fixed on the divine light flickering in the darkness, or do we plunge, like the author of King Lear, toward a cathartic immersion in the unmaking of the old “normal,” hoping to emerge on the other side purged and renewed?

Boccaccio, in response to history’s deadliest plague, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, proposed a third way: avoidance. His Decameron is a fictional tale of ten young people who flee plague-ridden Florence for the Tuscan countryside, where they wait out the epidemic with “a certain amount of exercise before the two daily meals, usually in the form of walks; music, songs, and dancing after meals; and of course a great deal of congenial conversation throughout,”[vii] Only good news was allowed to be shared, and competitive games that might provoke anxiety were forbidden (perhaps like giving up March Madness).

According to medieval scholar Glending Olson, Boccaccio’s fictional regimen echoed medical tracts from the plague period urging people to “keep your humors well-disposed by embracing ‘cheerfulness,’ by not occupying ‘your mind with death, passion, or anything likely to sadden or grieve you, but give your mind over to delightful and pleasing things’ and spend ‘your leisure in gardens with fragrant plants, vines, and willows, when they are flowering.’”[viii] Such pleasure, then, was not so much escapist as therapeutic, reducing stress and––hopefully––thereby boosting immunity.

Given the inescapable presence posed by this current pandemic in our mobile and wired world, the dream of a tranquil refuge seems remote and perhaps unjust. Though some may claim exemption by virtue of wealth or privilege, we’re all in this together. The heroic dedication of health care workers, the kindness and generosity of neighbors and loved ones, the creative responses by churches and communities to unprecedented challenges inspire us daily with countless examples of love, courage, resilience and sacrifice.

However, unlike most natural disasters or economic downturns, COVID-19 does not feel like a temporary setback in our accustomed pursuit of happiness. It seems more like the unmaking of a world which may never return. And in a global society of obscene inequality, spiritual poverty, and suicidal pollution, that may not be a bad thing. They say the birds are singing again in Wuhan.

As Christian philosopher Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes wonders, “Is this global virus another wake-up call for humans to work together and collaborate in shared common projects for the survival of our specie as a whole? . . . This is the kairos moment for spiritual rebirth and for choosing a new transformed way of life. Otherwise we make harmful choices, we fall back and continue to do more of the same absurd things that we have been doing. . .”[ix]

The pursuit of a more just and nourishing world would be a blessed and laudable outcome of this strange and apocalyptic journey we are engaged in. But is there an even deeper theological dimension to this crisis as well, returning us to face the “ground zero” where all endings and beginnings converge: the place of unmaking and making anew, the place where Lear and Cordelia die, and hope is impossibly born? The place where “Never. Never. Never. Never” is answered by the divine “Ever”?

We are creatures who die, sometimes in great numbers. The terms and limits of mortal life, where death is always near, are usually suppressed or forgotten in the dailiness of life. Earthly existence always seems so convincing, right up until the moment it vanishes. But now, as the death toll rises and systems careen toward collapse, nearly everything begins to feel fragile and evanescent.

How do we ground our radically unsettling new situation in a deep and fearless spirituality of faith, hope and love? My friend Bill Coats––priest, prophet and theologian––recently wrote, “our implied consent in Baptism was our willingness to live in the midst of the random freedom of Creation. Which is to say that death is everywhere and yet in its midst we live.”

We’ll follow this thread next time. Meanwhile, stay safe, and maybe stick with Boccaccio for now. Walk in a garden. Sing. Dance. Practice congenial conversation.

 

 

 

[i] Quoted in James Shapiro, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 23-24.

[ii] Ibid., 277.

[iii] Ibid., 303.

[iv] Ibid., 52. The statistics are from Shapiro as well.

[v] Lancelot Andrewes, “A Sermon Preached before the King’s Majesty, at Whitehall, on Wednesday, the Twenty-fifth of December, A.D. MDCVI. Being Christmas Day,” in Seventeen Sermons on the Nativity (reprint of original, Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: Triest Publishing, 2017), 20.

[vi] Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Times (1965), quoted in Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare and Modern Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 268.

[vii] From Pampinea’s instructions to her friends in the Decameron, quoted in Glending Olson, Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986), 180.

[viii] Olson, 175.

[ix] Passed along by peacemaking writer Jim Forest and cited in a March 13, 2020 blog post by Ryan Hall: https://paceebene.org/blog/2020/3/13/time-for-a-wake-up-call-in-response-to-the-coronavirus

 

O Sing to Me of Heaven: Requiem for a Friend

Stephen D. O’Leary at Point Reyes National Seashore, June 13, 2011 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

My friend Stephen D. O’Leary departed this life on January 24, 2020, just days after we sang together at the California Shape Note Singing Convention. Although he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had just begun chemo, he was feeling pretty good that weekend. He said afterward, “I plan to keep singing until I die (which I hope will not be anytime soon), and even after.” Two days later, way too soon, he was gone. Today I preached this homily at his requiem, where many of his shape note friends gathered to sing his spirit home. 

In early January, on Twelfth Night, Stephen shared on Facebook an article which had caught his attention, about the possibility of robot priests––speaking machines which could offer blessings, prayers and comfortable words on demand. And of course Stephen had questions: Would a robot priest, he asked, require that God be “unable to distinguish between the bot’s prayer and the prayer of an actual human person, or . . . only that the person being prayed for by the bot must believe that the bot is an actual conscious being…?” Thankfully, no such questions are at issue in this liturgy!  Fr. Gagan and I are not battery-operated.

But such questions were so Stephen. His passionate and curious mind was always wondering about things in the most interesting and unique way. How we will miss his questions––and so much besides.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a line expressing in nine words the uniqueness we all possess: What I do is me: for that I came. Stephen did Stephen as well as he could, and each of us has our own stories about why he came, and what difference he made in our lives.

A few hours before he died, he posted a poem by George Eliot about the “choir invisible / whose music is the gladness of the world.” The “choir invisible” is the poet’s name for those departed souls whose lingering influence has made us better, and even now may still “Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love, / Beget the smiles that have no cruelty, / Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d, / And in diffusion ever more intense!”

“To make [such] undying music in the world” was the holy work to which Stephen aspired, even when his road was rough and steep.  We mourn his absence, lament the sudden withdrawal from the visible world of such a remarkable and dear companion. As we sing at the end of every shape note convention, just before we go our separate ways:

Your comp’ny’s sweet, your union dear
Your words delightful to my ear
Yet when I see that we must part
You draw like cords around my heart

But the absence of a loved one in bodily and temporal form is succeeded by new forms of presence. Although death changes the relationship, it does not end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Stephen is no longer in one particular place. He is now in every place or occasion where we remember him. He is present whenever we think of him, or speak of him, or tell the stories that bring him back. I’m pretty sure I’m always going to hear his unmistakable voice whenever we hit those high notes in shape note hymns like Stratfield or Villulia.

At the tomb of Jesus, the angel of resurrection told the sorrowing women, “The one you seek is not where you laid him. From now on, you need to be looking elsewhere.” Wendell Berry has said something similar about all the departed, who now are “hidden among all that is, / And cannot be lost.”

Resurrection faith tells us that a person’s continuing presence is not purely the product of our own subjectivity. Though we see Stephen no longer, he continues to exist as more than just memory or feeling or imagination. As he was when he was created, so he remains: a beloved child of God, but now embraced and glorified within a larger wholeness from which none of us will ever be separated. This wholeness, which has many names, is the Love Supreme which binds us all together. This interconnection, this communion, cannot be broken, even by death.

The Lakota people have the expression “all my relatives” to describe the continuing bond between the living and the dead. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota Episcopal priest, puts it this way: “Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.”

But knowing that death is not the end does not make the burden of loss any lighter. Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” This is the only time Jesus is criticized by his friends, so bitter is their grief. Lord, if you had only come sooner, you could have delayed his fate, his mortality, for a little while longer. You could have cured him. Why did he have to die now?

Well, Jesus doesn’t like death any more than Mary and Martha do. When he approaches the tomb of his friend, he is, the gospel tells us, “greatly disturbed.” In Greek these words carry a connotation of anger, so we might say that Jesus was just as mad at death as everyone else was that day.

And so, we are told, the One who would be revealed as the Lord of life rebukes death in the most dramatic way. He peers into the darkness of the cave tomb and cries, “Lazarus! Come forth!” And Lazarus does come forth, into the light, a living man, inhaling the freshness of a spring morning.

But his resuscitation is only a temporary stay. Lazarus will die again, sooner or later. And shortly after this miracle, Jesus himself will die, sharing the fate of every mortal so that God might transform that fate into something glorious. As we sing in The Sacred Harp (#163 on the bottom): Thence he arose, ascended high, to show our feet the way.

The raising of Lazarus may not have been a true resurrection into life eternal, but it was a vivid foretaste of the human future, when everyone who has fallen asleep in death will hear the voice of the divine Friend who knows us by heart, calling us each by name on that “great rising day.”

Some of us were at Angels Gate in San Pedro for the California Shape Note Convention, when Stephen, only a few days before his death, led us in singing “Farewell Anthem.”

My friends, I am going on a long and tedious journey,
Never to return, never to return. . .
Fare you well,
Fare you well, my friends,
And God grant we may meet together in that world above. . .

Stephen was not being literal––he did not expect to leave us so soon––but I imagine him smiling now to know he was bound for  glory with a song on his lips, and that so many who love him have gathered here today to join in that song with sweet accord.

I once heard a shape note singer tell about her mother’s death out in Sand Mountain, Alabama. A lot of singers were standing round her bed, keeping vigil with the old songs. But there came a moment when her mother began to sing a tune that none of them recognized. They couldn’t quite place it. And then they realized she wasn’t singing the melody. She was singing the treble part. She was singing harmony with voices from the other side, which only she could hear. The choir invisible.

Oh, sing to me of heav’n,
When I am called to die,
Sing songs of holy ecstasy
To waft my soul on high. . .

 

Then to my ravished ear
Let one sweet song begin,
Let music charm me last on earth,
And greet me first in heav’n.

 

Stephen O’Leary (right) and David Olson lead “Farewell Anthem” at the 2020 California Shape Note Convention.

“Trailing clouds of glory”–– Requiem for my Niece

Anise Stevens, 1969-2019 (Photo by Emilie Zeug)

Almost 50 years ago, the baptism of my niece, Anise Mouette Stevens, was one of my first sacramental acts. For the past seven years, she fought a brave battle against cancer. Today, with a heavy heart, I presided at her Requiem. 

Some of you were there when Anise entered this world.
Some of you were there when she left it.
Some of you grew up with her, or worked and played with her,
or were taught and mentored by her.
Some of you have known the intimacy of family with her,
or the close bonds of friendship.
Some of you have shared the journey of motherhood with her.
Some have shared her fierce struggle for wellness.
All of us have been touched by her, inspired by her.
All of us have felt, in our own special way, “the Anise effect.”

I can’t begin to describe my niece’s rich and amazing life in the few minutes I have here. There will be time for stories and memories later, but for now, let me offer a sampling of the many voices of love and gratitude posted by her “tribe” online at The Anise Effect Facebook page.

Brave, stylish, radiant, beautiful, kind, warm, caring, daring, sharp-witted, accessible, erudite, literary, Anise is one of a kind.

She had a way of being there without trying to fix you, minimizing your problems, judging you, or expecting any­thing back from you. She just was there.

She made excellence itself a norm in her classes, and that made us all want to work hard to be our best, not to please her, but because that was the standard she had created.

She gave me advice about life that I will follow for the rest of my life

She was the only LA art writer to walk into The California African American museum when I called for diverse coverage of the art scene—back when it wasn’t the hip place to be. 

I hope you know how much I have always looked up to you and your intelligence, grace, beauty, coolness, decisiveness, creativity, boldness, kindness, charm, energy, forward motion, vision, vulnerability, strength. You inspire me.

You truly were instrumental in showing me a new way to live.

Anise never once felt sorry for herself, but in her pain gave comfort to others.

You carried a million pounds on your shoulders, yet still kept a loving and generous nature.

She’s intelligent, caring, creative, loving, strong, and hilariously, bitingly (at times) witty. Those are all important characteristics, and Anise simply wouldn’t be Anise without them. Beyond all of that, however, Anise has a rare talent for bringing out the best in all who know her.

She listens to understand. 

Anise walks on water.

Such beautiful tributes. Blessed is she who has touched so many people.

I’ve been reading over her writings about the L.A. art scene.[i] She had an engaged, humane voice as a critic, always seeking connections between the artworks and the questions of who we are and how to live. And certain sentences jumped out at me as if they might be telling me not just about a particular artist, but about Anise herself, about her own sense and sensibility in the art of shaping a life. Listen to these three sentences, taken from three different reviews:

She not only sheds the unnecessary, but she articulates the primary essence of her materials. [ii] 

Accidents and mistakes aren’t simply recognized as failures, but instead as original, one-of-a-kind works[iii]

Considering all that could go wrong when working with such unpredictable materials, [her] efforts glisten with an air of mystique.[iv]

Well, Anise certainly had an air of mystique, and so much more. But now, each of us feels the wound of her departure. Even though we know a lot about mortality, and the battle she fought, her absence still feels like a surprise. And so untimely. So unjust. How could someone so precious, so dear, so full of life, not live forever?

To live in this world, says Mary Oliver,
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go. [v]

At Church of the Angels in Pasadena, California, everyone came forward to lay a flower on the altar with Anise’s ashes.

There’s an Irish song called “The Parting Glass.” They sing it in pubs at closing time. Its minor key and wistful words express the melancholy of ending the evening’s camaraderie as people go their separate ways into the night––a sorrow which feels like a rehearsal for the end of life itself:

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had,
Are sorry for my going away.
And all the loved ones that e’er I had
Would wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and softly call,
“Goodnight, and joy be with you all.

I love that last line. The singer doesn’t just say farewell and disappear. She pronounces a blessing upon those who remain: “Joy be with you all.” Yes, we honor our dead by the tears we shed. We honor them even more by embracing the joy they wish for us.

If I should die before the rest of you, said British comedienne Joyce Grenfell,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone.
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell,
But life goes on,
So sing as well. [vi]

Such a recovery of joy is not a matter of forgetting or leaving behind. The connection continues, but in a new way. When C.S. Lewis wrote about the grief process after the death of his wife, he said that as the acute sense of loss began to fade, he wondered whether he was starting to forget her by being happy again, or whether he might betray the rich complexity of her being by reducing her to a fixed set of memories.

But once he just stopped worrying about it, he found that, as he put it, he “began to meet her everywhere.” It wasn’t a voice or an apparition, or even a big emotional experience. It was, he said, “a sort of unobstrusive but massive sense that she is, just as much as ever, a fact to be taken into account.” [vii]

The absence of a loved one in a bodily and temporal form is succeeded by new forms of presence. I once asked a group of high school students to write their own epitaph, and one seventeen-year-old girl proposed this for her imaginary tombstone:

You say goodbye,
I say hello.

The people who matter have a way of sticking around. Although death changes the relationship, it doesn’t end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Our beloved Anise is no longer in one particular place. She is now in every place we remember her. She is present when her voice echoes in our ears, or in those places where we shared special times together. She is present whenever we think of her, or speak of her, or tell the stories that embody her time among us.

The great east window in this church makes the same point. The angel of resurrection is telling the sorrowing women, “The one you seek is not where you laid him. From now on, you need to be looking elsewhere.” Or as we heard earlier in Wendell Berry’s poem, “She is hidden among all that is, / And cannot be lost.” [viii]

As a person of faith, I believe that this continuing presence is not merely memory or imagination. Whether we live or die, we all belong to a larger wholeness, from which we can never be separated. This wholeness, for which there are many names, is the Love that binds us all together. This interconnection, this communion, cannot be broken, even by death.

The Lakota people have the expression “all my relatives” to describe the continuing bond between the living and the dead. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota Episcopal priest has said that “Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.”

Christian tradition calls this the communion of saints, described in the Bible as a great cloud of witnesses encouraging us from above. I especially love novelist George Eliot’s term for this fellowship of heaven: “the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.” And I think that Anise’s tribe, all who have experienced her supportive and encouraging nature, would agree that her music was, and will continue to be, the gladness of the world.

T.S. Eliot said, “In my end is my beginning.” Anise died at 5:28 a.m. on New Year’s Day. That was the exact beginning of astronomical twilight, the very first minute of dawn on the first day of the year of her 50th birthday. Outside on the street, the Rose Parade was in its final stages of preparation.

Anise’s stepmother has posted a description of that morning:

We’re with Anise’s body that we washed and anointed as the Rose Parade unfurls just outside the window. Her apartment is on Orange Grove at the start of the parade. Bands are playing and the front lawn is filled with bleachers of cheering people. Anise has flowers tattooed on both shoulders. She painted flowers. We dressed her in a favorite dress with embroidered flowers. And now the entire street for miles around is filled with flower-strewn floats.

Life and death, singing in harmony.

Painting by Anise Stevens.

In her last weeks, Anise wondered about what lay ahead. That is the question. My sister Martha said to me the other day that her daughter is “on her way,” and then she cited Wordworth’s evocative image of the next life as our native home to which we shall return:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; / The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting / And cometh from afar; / Not in entire forgetfulness, /And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home: [ix]

We have no maps for our homeward journey. Still, we wonder.

When Henry David Thoreau lay dying at age 45, a family friend said to him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” And Thoreau, who had spent his life carefully observing and describing what he saw in the fields and woods around Walden Pond, replied simply, “One world at a time.” [x]

However curious we may be about what it’s like across that dark river between the worlds, we can’t see it from here. But I would venture to say that heaven is not so much a place as it is a relationship. We live in God and God lives in us. And that is true on both sides of the river.

When the 14th-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, was only 30 years old, she fell ill and came very close to death. As she lay on her sickbed, she had a vision of divine Love, who told spoke to her, telling her everything she needed to know about her ultimate future:

All shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of thing shall be well.

 What else do we need to know?

Jane Kenyon was a poet who died at 49, the same age as Anise. She envisioned the process of dying to be “like a horse grazing / a hill pasture that someone makes / smaller by coming every night / to pull the fences in and in.” No more “running wide loops,” nor even “the tight circles.” But the body’s decline is not the only thing going on, according to the poet. Surrender is prelude to transformation, and Kenyon’s poem[xi] turns into a prayer:

Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.

And in Kenyon’s “Notes from the Other Side,” she reports that “God, as promised, / proves to be mercy clothed in light.”[xii] Amen to that.

 And we do know one thing for a fact: at the end, Anise was smiling.

Anise Stevens, mid-1970s (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Some of you may have seen on The Anise Effect a photograph I took over 40 years ago, capturing Anise as a little girl, running joyfully through a field on her Aunt Marilyn’s farm. She is kicking up the dust beneath her feet. The late afternoon sun is behind her, a radiant backlight, and the dust too is suffused with radiance, as if Anise were trailing clouds of glory. It may only be dust, but it is transformed by the sun into a glorious substance. And so shall we all be transformed.

We began the liturgy by singing an early American lyric:

My friends, I bid you all adieu;
I leave you in God’s care;
And if I here no more see you,
Go on––I’ll meet you there.

I believe that Anise is wishing us all well this very moment, so let me close with another lyric, from a song by Jane Voss, “To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places”:

To all of you who took me in
Who shared the thick and stretched the thin
Who gave me comfort on the run
Who saved my life, who made it fun
Wherever you may be tonight
I hope this finds your burdens light
Your purpose high, your spirit strong
I hope that you have got along
My song was lost and gone, if not for you

 

 

[i] You can find links to her critical writings here: http://www.anisestevens.com/clips.html

[ii] “Miya Ando,” Artillery Magazine, Nov. 8, 2016 (http://artillerymag.com/miya-ando/)

[iii] “The Analog Revolution: Shock of the Old,” Artillery Magazine, May 3, 2016 (http://artillerymag.com/the-analog-revolution/)

[iv] “Farrah Karapatian,” Artillery Magazine, Feb. 3, 2016 (http://artillerymag.com/farrah-karapetian-2/)

[v] Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 178.

[vi] Quoted in All in the End is Harvest: An Anthology for Those Who Grieve (UK: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1989).

[vii] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, q. in All in the End is Harvest, 105.

[viii] Wendell Berry, “Three Elegiac Poems.”

[ix] William Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Chiidhood.”

[x] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8.

[xi] Jane Kenyon, “In the Nursing Home,” Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press. 2005), 282.

[xii] “Notes from the Other Side,” in Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

 

What Will You Wish You Had Said?

Listening to voices from the end of life at Spoken/Unspoken.(Photo by Jim Friedrich)

At the end of your life, what will you wish you had said?

 This question is the premise for “Spoken / Unspoken: Stories of Living and Dying,” a moving audio installation at California’s Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. In a room of warm and cheerful colors, the visitor hears a succession of voices responding to the question. Each speaker is a person near the end of his or her life, recorded at Hospice of Santa Cruz County. Their words are also supplied in written form.

“I wanna say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. . . I want to say everything. Everything I feel. Everything I experienced. . . I’m finding answers all the time and I’m finding more questions too. . . I’m letting it happen, I’m not running after it. If it comes I’ll latch onto it.”

 “I wish I could say I’m sorry to the people who I have offended in my life in different ways.”

 “I don’t understand myself. One of these days I’ll find out what’s going on.”

 “I cannot believe the speed of light that takes place toward your end days. What happened from 50 on was unbelievable. Time goes by so quickly. It’s just unimaginable. You can’t do anything about it.”

 “I’ve often been afraid [to get closer to people]. I don’t know why I’m afraid. There’s times that I think I’ve had answers to a problem a person has told me about and I haven’t shared what I thought the answer was, and I feel like I missed the point. I missed the time of being God’s handyman. They are not so much words of wisdom, but they are feelings that I have. I didn’t tell them that I loved them enough. I didn’t show that love enough.”

“I want to say, may this be a good day for you and that you’re enjoying . . . thinking of the creative things in you that God has given you to do––and go do one of them someday.”

Every voice is accompanied by its own unique musical score, created by composer and sound artist Lanier Sammons. The peaceful ambient music reflects not only the emotional content of the various interviews but also the particular tone, tempo and manner of each individual speaker. The result is a quality of presence which is more than whatever is being said.

I was especially taken by the man who broke into a rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening.” His singing was melodious and full of warmth. You may see a stranger across a crowded room. And somehow you know. It’s all about desire. As the theologians and novelists tell us, every story begins with a lack, and longing is at the heart of who we are.

We all know that words can suggest but never exhaust the complexity of our stories or the mystery of our being. But what is unique about the voices in this installation is their location––at life’s most critical boundary. Whether we think of it as “the end” or understand it to be the door between worlds, death invites retrospective reckonings. What has been the meaning of my story? Did I make a difference? Is there something I wish I had done, or said?

Spoken / Unspoken works at many levels. The attentive acts of listening by the hospice staff, the sound artist, and the museum curators have honored the beauty and value of dying elders, who are too often marginalized by a society uncomfortable with aging and death. The various voices convey both the uniqueness of every individual and the universality of our shared human condition. And it creates a sacred space where we can experience community not only with the specific people who share something of themselves in the recordings, but with every soul on pilgrimage into life’s unknown futures.

The installation also prompts visitors to perform a couple of actions.  Stationery and pencils are provided so we can communicate by letter something that needs to be said to a friend or loved one. A text encourages us: “Don’t wait, say it now.” There is also an adjacent recording booth, where you can make your own response to the question, “What do you wish you had said?” Sammons will then take your story, weave it together with other voices, and set it all to music. A week later you can hear the result on headphones as part of the installation.

What have I myself left unsaid after so many years on this earth? I’ve been wondering about that ever since experiencing the Santa Cruz installation a couple of weeks ago. I’m also dreaming about the adaptation of this sound installation concept for religious communities. I have led church retreats where we practice storytelling and storylistening––beginning with our communal sacred stories and moving into the treasuries of our personal stories. And people are usually surprised to discover how much there is to know about the life stories and spiritual experiences of their companions in faith. Even in communities where we profess the sacredness of every person as God’s beloved, so much is left unsaid between us.

So here’s an idea. What if communities of faith spent some time recording members’ responses to the big questions––about God, humanity, faith, hope, love, transformation, etc.––or provided a sound booth (a technological confessional?), where people can walk in and record what matters most to them? Then let some music and sound artists create an audio mix from the gathered material, and play it back in a church space where drop-ins can linger and listen to a living “cloud of witnesses.”

If any of this sparks your own creativity or exploration, I’d love to hear about it.

Falling Leaves and the Fate of Mortals

New Hampshire, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things,
but to love things heavenly; and even now,
while we are placed among things that are passing away,
to hold fast to those that shall endure. . .

–– Collect for the Sunday closest to the Autumnal Equinox

 

The Book of Common Prayer has a collect, or gathering prayer, for each Sunday of the year. Many of the collects reflect the themes of their liturgical season, but only one of them seems to make an explicit connection with one of the four natural seasons. At the beginning of Autumn, when leaves will fall, flowers wither, and birds depart, the Church prays that we who “are placed among things that are passing away” may not be “anxious.”

The origins of the prayer are, in fact, not seasonal, but political. It was composed when the stability of the late Roman Empire was under threat by barbarian invaders. Inspired by the text of Colossians 3:2 (Set your mind on things that are above, not on things of earth), it reflects the sense of the world as we know it coming to an end. When all that defines us is being swept away, what is the enduring rock to which we can cling?

With perfect brevity, the prayer sums up the spirituality of Autumn, the season of loss and letting go. In a year when my best friend, my father-in-law, and two nonagenarian mentors have all passed away, the season’s metaphorical message seems acutely personal. No matter how dearly we cherish the colors of fall, they are the prelude to decay––“the hectic beauty of death.”[i] Outside my window, the katsura’s golden cloak and the maple’s scarlet finery will soon lie on the earth beneath naked branches. It feels like loss.

Katsura and maple trees, Bainbridge Island, October 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In January of 1842, Henry David Thoreau suffered two bitter deaths, both terribly premature. His older brother John cut himself shaving on New Year’s Day and died ten days later of tetanus. He was 27. Two weeks later, Waldo Emerson, the endearing five-year-old son of Thoreau’s great friend and mentor, came down with scarlet fever. In three days he was gone.

In her revisionist study of America’s iconic naturalist––Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau–– Branka Arsić sees his life’s work grounded in deeply personal experiences of loss. His private grief led him to contemplate the “perpetual grief” in nature, as matter continuously mutates from one form to another, and find in it, as Arsić argues, “an “endless/formless mourning that recreates as it grieves.”[ii] Through his close observations of natural processes, Thoreau came to understand death and loss as the means of life, and not its annulment. Decay and decline are not deviations from a normally healthy state, but an integral, inevitable part of the performance of mortal existence. As he wrote in his final essay, October, or Autumnal Tints:

“Will not the land be in good heart
because
the crops die down from year to year?
The herbage cheerfully consents to bloom, and wither,
and give place to the new.”[iii]

The growth and decay of New England leaves became a presiding image for Thoreau’s reflections on a world where passing away is a necessary part of an enduring cycle of renewal. Published six months after his death, his concluding work celebrated the autumnal cycle as a mirror of the human condition:

“It is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves! How gently lay themselves down and turn to mould!––painted of a thousand hues. . . . They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die.”[iv]

Vermont, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In Autumn: A Season of Change, Peter J. Marchand similarly concludes that there is “as much life as there is death in the browning of meadows and the drying of leaves. . . .” 14

For the apparent disappearance of many plants and animals, autumn is often seen as an end. But the seasons are part of a continuum, a revolving process of birth, death, and renewal—and if such could be said to have any beginning or end, then fall could just as well be viewed as a beginning. . . . The seeds of another season have already been planted—sown on the wind and the wings of birds and the coats of animals to find new life in new places. Another generation is already awakening in the wombs of the great mammals. And in all the hidden sanctuaries of autumn—in the crevices of dormant trees, in the cold safety of piled leaves and decaying logs, in the sediments of stream and pond bottom—myriads of insect larvae are beginning their incredible metamorphic journey into spring and adulthood. Energy is flowing and nutrients are circulating. These are the processes by which nature’s bounty is reinvested in a burst of new growth, reproduction, and dispersal, to arrive at yet another autumn and another season of change.[v]

 

New Hampshire, October 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

But if this cycle of perpetual renewal frees us from the burden of mourning the fall of every leaf, what about the “falling-sickness” of our own mortality? What will become of me when I fall into the arms of Mother Earth? Do I simply decompose into primordial materials for the making of some entirely new form of future life? Is my unique consciousness swallowed into eternal anonymity, like a raindrop in the sea? Or is there an “I”––with identity, memory, personhood––who survives the transit into whatever’s next?

Arsić understands Thoreau’s “I” as dying to any sense of persisting identity, so that there is no essentialist, interior self to maintain its distinctive subjectivity in an afterlife. Rather, the whole universe is alive with thoughts and relations which re-occur in new ways and inhabit new forms. What survives are the thoughts and experiences, the presences, which are not the possession of separate, autonomous individuals. The universe as a whole is doing the thinking and being, not any of us in particular. Or as Arsić puts it in her twist on Descartes, “where there are thoughts there is no ‘I’.” The sovereign self surrenders to the greater flow of consciousness whose source is beyond the self.[vi]

We tend to think of ourselves as an “I” who surveys the world from a protected tower. But what if we are not so insulated from the things and presences in which we live and move and have our being? What if, like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur[vii], “I” am spellbound and possessed by external objects, no longer a private isolated self but a receptive convergence of the multiple sensations of a world saturated with communicative presence? When Thoreau, in taking a walk, felt himself “grandly related” to everything he experienced, he became what he saw, in a world where every object is alive and returns our gaze.

“Hence,” writes Arsić, “Thoreau can not only say that he is interested in thoughts that the body thinks but he can also risk a more startling claim: ‘All matter, indeed, is capable of entertaining thought’ (Journal: c. Fall 1845). Contemplation, then, is not something brought to matter by the mind; rather, in Thoreau’s account, all matter is treated as contemplative, alive, and thoughtful.”[viii]

This takes us pretty far into the philosophical weeds, but have we also wandered away from Christian orthodoxy? The “resurrection of the body” implies that the unique particularity of every human being will be re-membered by God on the Last Day. Personal identity will not utterly vanish into the All. Heaven will not be a congregation of amnesiacs. Something of our embodied being––our stories, our relationships––will have a future in the economy of God.

However, Christian theology also admits a radical discontinuity between this life and the next. We do not share the ancient Greek conception of immortal souls who simply shed their physical bodies to carry on in eternity without interruption. For there to be resurrection, there must first be annihilation. “So death will soon disrobe us all of what we here possess.”[ix] As St. Augustine said, to climb up “through my mind towards you who are constant above me. . . I will pass beyond even that power of mind which is called memory.”[x] If memory means “the story by which I define myself,” that’s a lot to let go of. How many of us are really prepared for such radical surrender?

If we are truly made in the image of the self-emptying God, then our insistence on maintaining the self as we know it only exacerbates the distance between human and divine. To overcome that distance requires a complete letting go, like the last autumn leaf, and falling into the no-thingness from which all are created.

Resurrection is then, in effect, a reprise of creation ex nihilo by the Love which “breaks, creates, and re-makes all meaning out of nothing.”[xi] Whatever it turns out to mean that God will be “all in all,” does it really matter how much of our individual construct of self survives the transition to the “other side?” When we are truly lost in wonder, love and praise, will self-consciousness matter, or even exist? Will it be important that “I” know that “I” am the one who is immersed in divine Being? Or will my former, earthly identity be rather beside the point in the interdependent, intertwined dance of God where we belong so completely to one another?

None of us will be shouting “Hey, look, it’s me!” in heaven.
We won’t even be shouting “Hallelujah!”
We will have become Hallelujah!

Vine maple, Washington Cascades, October 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

To enter the abyss of God, says Catholic theologian Caitlin Smith Gilson, is “no longer to be the self that knows itself and its God by separateness, for there would be no separation and thus no knowledge of difference or identity in God.” Her argument resolves into a prayer of surrender:

You are the source of my most genuine wants,
and I wanted to be nearer than difference
and therefore I surrender to You
who desire my genuine desires
emphatically and inexhaustibly
more than I can ever want.
You desired me and I desired You
and we desired a union
closer than philosophy and reason
and even faith
could give.[xii]

 

 

 

Related posts:

Leaves

A Tender Doom

 

[i] Martha McCulloch Williams, “What Saith September?” (1892), in Peter J. Marchand, Autumn: A Season of Change (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000), 14.

[ii] Branka Arsić, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016), 379.

[iii] Henry David Thoreau, October, or Autumnal Tints (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016), 37.

[iv] October, 89.

[v] Marchand, 135-6.

[vi] Arsić, 316.

[vii] Walter Benjamin adopted the 19th-century literary image of the flâneur (“stroller,” “saunterer”) as an image for the modern urban wanderer who loses himself in, or is possessed by, the impressions his world offers to him. In The Arcades Project (1999, p. 449), Benjamin cites an example of self-dissolved-into-world from Flaubert: “Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.”

[viii] Arsić, 310.

[ix] “Evening Shade,” a shape-note hymn, text by John Leland (1792), The Sacred Harp, #209 (Bremen, Georgia: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991).

[x] Confessions X, xvii, q. in Caitlin Smith Gilson, The Philosophical Question of Christ (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 209.

[xi] Gilson, 211

[xii] Ibid., 207, 213.

In Paradisum: On the Death of a Friend

Bill and Robyn Fisher (July 2005)

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

–– W.S. Merwin, “Berryman”

In September of 2004 my friend Bill Fisher sent me Merwin’s poem, adding the comment, “It is as if he is saying, ‘If you have to be sure, don’t love,’ or perhaps, ‘don’t live.’”

Bill’s letter was in response to some crisis in my own life, one of those times when you wonder whether your story matters, whether you are being good enough or real enough or deep enough. Or as another poet, William Stafford, put the question: “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”

In supplying thoughtful perspectives on my faltering attempts to do “my life,” Bill could be brutally honest about his own perilous quest for authenticity. He was well acquainted with the recurring dissonance between the voice within and the scripts thrust upon us by the outer world. And he was never afraid to share the painful parts of his own story if it could do some good for a friend.

“As I write these words to you,” he said in his letter, “I think of the last lines of a recent morning poem of mine: “To whom can I / still safely / confess my sins?” . . . I have to thank you for being one with whom I can still feel safe in my most radical vulnerability.”

Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th-century English abbot, said much the same thing in his beautiful treatise on friendship:

“But how happy, how carefree, how joyful you are if you have a friend with whom you may talk as freely as with yourself, to whom you neither fear to confess any fault nor blush at revealing any spiritual progress, to whom you may entrust all the secrets of your heart and confide all your plans . . .  Speak then without anxiety. Share with your friend all your thoughts and cares, that you may have something either to learn or to teach, to give and to receive, to pour out and to drink in.”[i]

I could always speak without anxiety in Bill’s presence.
And I always learned something from him; I always received something.

We first met––60 years ago this month––in the 8th grade at Harvard School, a leafy Episcopal boys’ prep nestled against the Hollywood Hills. The peculiar atmosphere of the place bonded us like veterans of some ancient war, incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t been there. Bill’s lifelong passion for teaching and writing might be traced to the bracing theatrics of our English instructor “swearing and throwing chalk and shaking a book in mid-air and shaming us, trying to open perhaps the smallest crack in our magnificent ignorance.”[ii]

Bill Fisher, Harvard School senior photo (1962)

We were classmates through high school and college, and remained close friends through all the changes and chances that followed. He was the best man at my wedding. As romantic idealists, we both found the Sixties a perfect time to come of age, and never quite got over it. Neither of us would ever be fully at ease in the kingdoms of complacency and compromise.

In a letter about the Occupy Movement in 2011, he said such manifestations of just and compassionate community had a value quite independent of any immediately tangible results. He recalled his first taste of utopian communitas at the Monterey Pop Festival in the Summer of Love (1967): “It was inebriating, and begged a simple question: Why can’t it be possible for us to interact in such a loving way––on the streets, in our commerce, among friends and supposed enemies?”[iii] The experience itself doesn’t have to last for the vision––and the questions it poses––to be enduring.

Addressing high school graduates in 2006, Bill offered his personal understanding of the Kingdom of God. “Or if you’re uncomfortable with the biblical term,” he told them, “you can call it ‘the morphic field of love.’” What he described to those students was something he himself had not always found, but had never stopped desiring: an environment where people “could reveal all of who and what they are, could explore themselves and their lives openly, without fear of being ridiculed, with every expectation of growing and realizing what they want and what they are, in their own lives and in their relationships with others.”[iv]

Born five days apart a few weeks after D-Day, Bill and I celebrated many birthdays together. The most memorable was our 30th, when we gathered at his family beach house with two other prep school classmates, also born in July 1944, for a weekend celebration with friends and lovers. For three days we shared fond memories and exuberant hopes. Turning 30 seemed a happy marker between youth’s giddy promise and the emerging fruitfulness of our adult lives. As “Hey Jude” came on the stereo, we toasted our futures by candlelight and vowed to gather again at 40.

But before our 31st year was done, one of our July fraternity of four died by his own hand. After his funeral in our prep school chapel, we who remained vowed to look out for one another, reject despair, and make the most of whatever time we were given. In the four decades since, Bill kept faith with that vow. I could not have had a better and more inspiring friend.

A few years ago, Bill began to show symptoms of Lewy Body Dementia. He went into physical decline, and suffered gradual diminishment of cognitive capacities, although we could still, until very recently, manage rich conversations about our favorite topics––music, movies, literature, art, politics, religion, relationships, and all the arcane trivia of a sixty-year friendship.

Bill was immensely blessed by the tireless support of his beloved wife Robyn, who took leave from her high school teaching position to be his caregiver. It was an immense journey for both of them, unimaginably daunting and at the same time full of grace. Her regular updates on the Caring Bridge website were moving, honest and often funny. That journey is her story to tell, but I am so grateful to know how much my friend was loved, and how not even the ravages of disease could rob him of his sweetness.

“If I’ve just lost the ability to be who I am,” he told her in July, “You remind me of who I am.”

The 17th-century Anglican poet/priest George Herbert, well acquainted with debilitating illness, warned the healthy to respect the dignity of the sick, and not “to judge calamities / By outward form. . . tremblings may / as well show inward warblings, as decay.”[v] In his final years, Bill was as alive as ever, but in a different way. His weakness was not, in one sense, a diminution of life, but a concentration of it into a reduced but saturated form.

The will to take on the physical and mental challenges of each day with courage, humor, and a high degree of curiosity exhibited more life, not less. Climbing the stairs, when he still had the strength for it, or just getting out of bed, after his legs had finally failed him, became more of a hero’s journey than the 93-mile trek he once made around Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. Piercing the fog of confusion with simple words of affection and delight displayed as much eloquence as any of his masterful writings.

The poet Jane Kenyon poignantly described the shrinking physical world of a woman in a nursing home, who is “like a horse grazing / a hill pasture that someone makes / smaller by coming every night / to pull the fences in and in.” No more “running wide loops,” nor even “the tight circles.” But the body’s decline is not the only thing going on. Surrender is prelude to transformation, and Kenyon’s poem turns into a prayer:

Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.[vi]

On Holy Cross Day, September 14, Bill suffered some kind of cardiac event, leaving him unable to speak or swallow. Just hours before slipping into permanent silence, he had told Robyn, “Thank you for being willing to treat life as a crazy adventure with me.”

I drove down to administer Last Rites as family and friends stood round Bill’s bed. His eyes were closed, his breathing gentle. We all laid hands of blessing on him, each thanking him for the gifts he had given us. There was no way to tell whether he could hear our words, but so much spoken gratitude surely bathed him with love, and the sense of communication felt very deep. I anointed Bill with oil and spoke the priestly words:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world. . .
May your rest be this day in peace,
and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Later we got out the guitars and made music for Bill, who had been a dedicated folkie since high school. We sang “Angel Band” (“I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near”); “Thanksgiving Eve” (“What can you do with each moment of your life, but love till you’ve loved it away”); “Language of the Heart” (“You will always be, even though time would disown you, / For you have set us free, those among us who have known you”); and many others.

The next day I entered his room alone to sing him one more song, “Waterloo Sunset.” We had both loved the quirky music of Ray Davies, and the song’s image of crossing over the river “to feel safe and sound” seemed so fitting.

And I won’t feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset
I am in paradise

Bill’s eyes never opened, but he seemed to stir, as if he wanted to harmonize one more time, the way we had done so often over the years. I gave him a final blessing and a kiss of peace, then left to make the long drive home. I knew it was our last goodbye.

Three days later, Robyn texted that it was now only a matter of hours. In my little oratory, I lit a tea light before a Byzantine icon of Madonna and Child, and kept vigil with prayers and songs. An hour before sunset, the flame expired, releasing the briefest wisp of ascending smoke.

The match dies, the flame is born.
The flame dies, the smoke is born.[vii]

Twenty minutes later the text came: Bill is gone.

The next night I went to hear the Seattle Symphony. I had bought my ticket long before, but the program now seemed more than happy chance––Mahler’s Second, whose theme is Resurrection! This massive 90-minute work gathers up the joys and sorrows of mortal life, pitting its affirming energies against the looming specter of negation. In the fourth movement, a mezzo-soprano pleads for relief:

Man lies in greatest need.
Man lies in greatest pain…
I am from God and shall return to God.
The loving God will grant me a little light…

In the stupendous finale, a hundred-voice chorus joins the soloists to protest the fate of human perishing:

O believe, my heart, believe:
Nothing to you is lost…
You were not born for nothing…

With wings which I have won
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated.

Soaring upward into the light was exactly the image I needed to sing my friend home. Bill got his PhD in medieval literature, and had taught Dante to high school students. I like to think that his close reading of the Commedia prepared him for the beatific vision at the end of the long and winding road:

thus did a living light shine all around me,
leaving me so swathed in the veil of its effulgence
that I saw nothing else. (Par. xxx.49-51)[viii]

 

Bill and Robyn in the high country (July 2005)

But Mahler allowed me little time for such digressions. The music insisted that I pay attention, not miss a note, as if my life depended on it. It was all here: life and death, tears and laughter, darkness and dawn. And in the end, every wound healed, every pain redeemed.

Rise! Yes, rise
My heart, in an instant!
That for which you have suffered
Shall carry you to God!

This heartfelt cry is answered by an explosion of orchestral sound, which Mahler himself described as a gift from beyond: “The soaring development and upward wave is here so immense, so unprecedented, that, afterwards, I did not know myself how I could have arrived at it. The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world. And – I think there is no one who can resist it. – One is battered to the ground and then raised on angels’ wings to the highest heights.”[ix]

In speaking so directly to my own grief, the music offered a consoling vision of apotheosis, as if the tombs had been emptied and all creation gathered into glory. Was this the grace and truth of revelation, or just a passing feeling, a trick of language and the senses?

If you have to be sure, don’t live.

 

 

 

[i] Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, tr. Lawrence C. Braceland, S.J., ed. Marsh L. Dutton (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 2.11, 1.4.

[ii] Bill Fisher, personal email (September 27, 2003).

[iii] Ibid. (November 19, 2011)

[iv] Bill Fisher, Commencement address at Tara Performing Arts High School, Boulder, Colorado, June 2006.

[v] George Herbert, “A Paradox: that the sicke are in a better case, then the Whole,” The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 29.

[vi] Jane Kenyon, “In the Nursing Home,” Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press. 2005), 282.

[vii] I learned this when I filmed Ken Feit, I.F. (Itinerant Fool), who recited it as he lit and then blew out a match.

[viii] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, tr. Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 733.

[ix] Anthony Monti, A Natural History of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2003), 162.