A short meditation on difficulties and those who help each other survive them. Guardians and heroes aren’t always so imposing and impressive in appearance. Angels do seem to exist among us in disguise.
This is a day designated by the Christian church for the remembrance of all the good, fine people who have lived, illuminated our lives, led the way for the rest of us, and now are also gone before us in death. Recollection, commemoration and admiration of those who have lived as great-hearted souls on the earth and set an example, large or small, of excellence for those of us who follow is, I think, a practice that anyone of any stripe, religious or not, can embrace; we are certainly all made better by such meditations, especially if and when we are made stronger by their guidance to follow in our honored loves’ radiant footsteps.
Spending a day in remembrance of loves lost is bound to be bittersweet, of course. When the bond has been close in life, it remains so in death, and however the pangs of loss may subside over time, on a day devoted to thoughtful recognition of our trusted and beloved friends, mentors and avatars of all things great and good, the pain can be as sharply new again as in the first sweep of sorrow. But if I am genuinely mindful and respectful of their gifts in life, I think that this can be transformational and healing and comforting, too.
Can I live as a reflection of my most-admired angels? It’s too tall an order for any ordinary mortal, I know. But that’s exactly why I think we have these living and loving models among us: to show that in community and mutual, loving support and with determined and patient growth on our own, greater things can happen than if we try to do significant and meaningful things independently. We are raised up by the waves of support around us. How can I not be grateful for that! This realization sweetens the day perceptibly. Do I wish that I could have my lost loves back again? Who would not! But I wouldn’t trade one tear, one iota of the hurt and anger and grief I’ve felt over any of their losses, to miss out on recognizing the beauty and joy and brilliance that they brought to this world in their too-short tenure here, and I know that some lights seem so bright in life that they can blind me at close range to what’s more easily discerned, when seen from this greater distance, as having the distinctive shape of an excellent soul.
However cold and sharp the wind may be,
As wild and deep as darkness ever falls,
From utmost edges of the storm still calls
A song that stills, that draws and comforts me—
Though battles rage, the world in sorrow drowns,
And trials threaten life and hope and light,
That gracious call still guides me through the night
As long as I will listen to its sounds—
No danger is so great, no ill so dire,
Nor pestilence and terror so extreme,
That it cannot be mended by the stream
Of melody from that angelic choir—
Now when amid the depths of dark and pain,
Where in the wilderness of life an adumbration points the way
From our benighted place, our strife and sorrows, to the sun of day,
A banner flares out on the breath of some great strength to give reprieve
To wearied lung and heart, from death to lift us to where we believe
Once more that goodness lies within, that kindness is courageous love,
That generosity’s akin to calling stars down from above
And handing them to needy souls to light their way to higher ground,
And that small songs pierce blazing holes in prison walls with their mere sound—
Here in the bitter night and cold, when such a beacon lights a spark
To guide us forward, as of old, let us rise up and leave the dark
And carry all our fellows, too, to those bright, grand palatial places
There are a lot of distinguishing features that we associate with Goodness, in the general sense of that construct. There are the usual ethical and even moral qualities we impute to a person or action or event in our humanist or religious ways: honesty, justice, kindness, compassion, hospitality, wisdom, patience and other such characteristics are almost universally recognized as positive and admirable. And while we can sometimes recognize these things in our fellow mortals, many of us find it easier to represent them in our minds’ eyes as some kind of super-beings that transcend human limitations, because it’s hard to imagine much of this happening or being sustainable in the hands or lives of mere people.
So we have our superheroes and our faeries, our special agents and goddesses, avatars and angels. But we’re still either too limited in our mental vocabularies or perhaps simply a little bit too insecure and egocentric to imagine or depict much that is Good without giving it a recognizable hint or ten of humanness. We make our gods in our own image, unable to picture them as truly different enough from ourselves to be genuinely Other and unique. We need to feel a concrete connection if we’re to make any sense of our own ideals.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, to my mind. How can I talk about the sweetness of a ripe pear with someone who has no sense of smell or taste? What it feels like to stand mid-stream in an icy creek with someone who has no legs or is a lifelong quadriplegic? How could I hope to discuss a complex topic with a deaf person from another country? We have to have some little commonalities, at least ones that we perceive as such, for us to have any kind of relationship, including the philosophical or emotional or spiritual.
So we, thankfully, have our Helpers, our unseen supporters and caretakers and watchers and guides, and we give them features that help us to understand and trust them. The other day when I was drawing I was thinking of a friend who, as I write this, is undergoing cancer treatment. Many friends and relatives and acquaintances have done so in times past, and many will yet again, and I think of them in their times of need and send, in my own way, my love and hope and concern, but most of them cannot use anything tangible that I have to offer. I think for cancer patients, my versions of angels would most certainly be beautifully smooth-headed creatures.
I am no surgeon, healer, scientist, caregiver or therapist of any sort. If you live close enough you might get some homemade chicken soup from me, or an armful of flowers from my home meadow, or a little note, but I have no cure to offer, have not even enough encouraging wisdom of my own to get you through the day better. What I do have is my own vision of what I would hope to have at my bedside or hovering around me as I tread any dangerous paths, a sort of gracious, singing, laughing and–when I need a modest and quiet companion who understands the sorrow of it all–gently embracing angel of mercy. And my particular versions of such beings work in force, and also make house calls, so I will gladly send regiments of them in all their shining, vaguely human, terribly purposeful Goodness to watch over all.
I admire real journalists and documentarians. Now, I do think that they are a very rare breed among news-people, the rest of whom are too driven by their corporate sponsors’ and their own biases by a long shot, no matter where on the spectrum of politics, religion, personal philosophy or other conviction they fall, but there are those honest characters who, if they do consistently let their beliefs steer their messages, at least recognize those prejudices and are quite open about them and still manage to give air time to opposing or differing points of view.
Still, the ones I really find compelling are a different sort of message bearers. They are harder to recognize, because they can be quite ordinary seeming mortals or wholly incorporeal, quotidian or fantastical, intentional or entirely, serendipitously accidental in their delivery of important news in our lives. Are they strangers we meet by happenstance and happy crossing of paths, like the townspeople in Germany who saw my older sister and me debarking a train after dark and looking around to orient ourselves? The kind couple approached us, told us that Celle (however lovely) was a very small town indeed and that there were few places for visitors to stop overnight but they’d help us find one, gave us directions and set us on the path to a very cozy little bed and breakfast before disappearing into the dark like a mist.
Are the messengers those outstanding teachers who have acted not only as educators in our lives but also as inspiration, as mentors, counselors, guides and friends? Mrs. Willis, Mr. Cunningham, Prof. Keyes: I salute you! Teachers have done as much to bring light to my life as to the dim corners of my mind over the years, and I am grateful for the news and stories and messages they bring. Are there other beings among us able to protect and direct us without our even being aware of it? Of course there are. Some of them are simply gracious fellow humans whose good deeds and kindness will never be seen or fully known and recognized in our lifetimes, either because we are too dim-witted and self-involved to notice as we should or because they merely do their mitzvahs without fanfare, without expecting or needing any recognition and recompense. These we should imitate and their message should be spread further by our going out in turn to do kindnesses for others and requiring no attention or glory.
And I think that–given how beautiful and rich life can be when we do pay attention–there must be others in our midst too; angels or aliens, I don’t much care what we name them, but there must be Love looking out for us to make even the tiniest good possible, let alone the many graces that fill our days if we only look. Their message, I suspect, is nothing more or less than that we are being well looked after, and our little lives recorded no matter how small they may seem to us.
Alas! for shadows carve my collarbones
and misery is lapping at my heels;
Death’s machinations turn, wheels within wheels,
and grind me for its grist between cold stones–
And yet, as dust-dry as I turn, breath blooms
persistently, a torture to my soul
when I had rather be devoured whole
and go on into Peace’s empty rooms–
Still, here I stay, lie atomized, forlorn,
forgotten on the fringes of what life
and loves I knew once, when my days were rife
with possibility as a new morn–
Let me die now, not live without a chance
of altering this endless Totentanz.
Lest you think me suffering myself, or pessimistic, I assure you I am alive and well. It’s just that I have seen many others struggle with prolonged and pitiful end-of-life dramas and was reminded this June when I saw the beautiful antique gravestones in Boston of how different things are now, when we have such nearly unbelievable powers to keep ourselves alive for tremendously long lives but have lost touch with when it’s acceptable or even desirable not to do so. If our skills for ensuring or encouraging genuine quality of life are far outstripped by our skills for lengthening it, what does that say about us? Generations removed from our forebears, whether in Boston or elsewhere, who knew much more primitive medicine, greater physical dangers, irreparable injuries and the concomitant shorter lifespans we have apparently long since forgotten, do we know how to accept death as a natural end to life and treat dying as a passage to be eased to the fullest extent instead of forbidden?