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?
Barbara is standing by to cut my scruffy hair:
but, say–doesn’t that look a bit like an electric chair?
Look at that pair of scissors–oh, boy howdy, are they sharp!
Will my coiffure just leave me playing sad songs on the harp?
I’d say it’s mighty hot in here–a preview glimpse of Hell,
Or maybe just a purgatory-hint, that hairspray smell–
I’m not so absolutely sure that something here is wrong;
and yet, what’s so darned horrible in leaving hair this long?
Is it sheer paranoia and delusion of myself–
Hey! What’s that creepy science stuff in tubes up on the shelf?
I’m getting awfully shaggy, yes, it’s true–but not a Nut!
(I merely hope it’s nothing but my hair that will get cut!)
Oh, Barbara, I am nervous, so please, kindly, Dear, refrain
from trimming quite so near my throbbing jugular, poor vein.
And if you have to croak me (does this happen very often?),
at least make sure I’m wearing stylish hair there in my coffin.
Yes, it is Valentine’s Day. I can’t help–whether I buy into the modern version of the commercially enhanced holiday or not–being reminded of my many loves. And, external motivations aside, I am glad and grateful and even gleeful when I think of how much love is in my life. I have wealth and happiness beyond what anyone might think to wish for, let alone deserve, and I revel in it on Valentine’s Day and every other moment when I stop to think about my many loves.I have you to thank for it, for my life in worlds of immense happiness! I am fortunate beyond reason in being surrounded by the love of so many, and in turn, to be able to love you all right back. So I send my profound thanks and my joyful love to all of you, especially on this day of all days. To my parents and my sisters! To my sisters’ spouses and offspring. To our grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. To in-laws and to those who have been adopted into our family as additional and also much-loved sisters and brothers and extended family.
I send thankful love, too, to the many friends who have populated my life with such warm affection and care and company from all the parts of my life outside of my parents’ home: my playmates and classmates, my neighbors and teachers and mentors, my roommates and housemates. To the colleagues and students who made my years of teaching so much better by your presence, and the years beyond it by your memory and continued vitality, I send love. To my gracious and hilarious and tender-hearted and wise readers and commenters here at the blog. To those far-flung friends all around the world whom I can visit only indirectly but can carry in my innermost heart easily all the time. Most of you who are among these many loves of mine may never know what an imprint you left and continue to make on my heart and mind, but you do; oh, how beautifully you do.
My good fortune in a much-loved life is crowned with spending my days and nights in the delightfully daffy and deeply caring companionship of the partner spouse who is as integral to this life of love as the air I breathe and the pulse that knocks my heart and mind into these momentary recognitions of such goodness. I love you, my sweetheart! And I send love to all of you others who have shared and continue to shine the sunlight of your kind and cheering ways on my happy life. Happy Valentine’s Day, every one, and may you be as loved as I am! The holiday ought not be the only time you say so, but it’s certainly an excellent excuse and reminder to tell the ones who love you and whom you love that they are dear to you, too. And yes, I might as well add my own thanks to yours, since those who warm us with their love teach us, and make us able in turn, to go out and love others. That is how love works best.
Where callas leapt into the day from darker places and made play
Of turning winter into spring full suddenly, the single thing
That was most lovely in that place, that clearing full of sweetness, grace
And peaceful calm, was that the birds alighting there, beyond all words
And dreams of nature, sat quite still and quiet, and a subtle thrill
Of magic held the place in thrall–as if amid a concert hall
The orchestra fell silent, yet their silver melodies still set
The air a-quiver, pulsing, live with such wild music as to thrive
Beyond its moment and to sing whether the birds sat or took wing–
The butterflies that came around this glade of gladness also found
It fit to sit rather than fly and flit about the gleaming sky,
And set their wings to capture sun rather than race about and run,
Their painted beauty neatly limned as though tall ships in port had trimmed
Their sails to rest and find surcease in this most gracious bay of peace–
And yet, the clearing’s finest gift was that no butterfly would lift
A wing disturbing stillness there, nor bird stir up the hovering air,
Nor even angel choose to float aloft, disturbing the remote
And pleasant sense of such remove as was existent in that grove–
All this to say, though all could rise and wing their way about the skies,
Each visitor the clearing drew found on arriving that she knew
It was a place whose joy and mirth might make her leap up from the earth,
Yet with serenity so blessed she chose instead to lie at rest,
By flight’s exertions not be led, but letting souls fly high instead.