Here is an event which it has become my duty to declare:
all my life I have been searching for the world, then, while it hurtled through space at roughly 107 000 km/h with a spin speed of aproximately 1670 kp/h (it matters where on the rock you stand) then … this flower smaller than a small coin, caught a bit of the flare that fumed and spat from the sun eight minutes ago, and held it, like a promise, and though we move and in that movement find the earth to be such a place where pain and grief find us, no matter where we look, then also we must remember that it will pass. Everything passes.
And we are little more than caretakers of brevity called upon to do the impossible, to make a life with a brief spell on a brutal rock. But, here is where we have surprised, even ourselves- we have found beauty where there ought to be none. Are we not remarkable? Are we not better than we thought?
I do not know her, the old lady at the window. But, she is familiar to me. I see her almost every day when I approach the cross section. I look for oncoming traffic, then look for her. It has become a habit. She is consistent (a necessary requirement for a habit to form). I do not know if her looking out of the window is the result of habit or the lack of alternatives. She sits to the right of her window. (would it alter the narrative if I called it thewindow?) So, now I have designated the window as hers. Naturally, she does not own the window. Ownership in old-age homes are a complicated business. Usually it is strictly limited to private possessions: blankets, clothing, books, toiletries, jewellery, false-teeth. Unlike their owners, these items retain value. They are handled with tenderness, treasure-like, as if the care shown them might somehow reach the dead. Perhaps we treat their things as sacred in the hope that these gentle gestures might have retrospective powers. Maybe kindness in the present has currency in the after-life. Nevertheless, domestic rituals emerge around the debris of life. Clothing and blankets are held up to the face, breathed in to detect traces of the dead. Unopened cakes of soap sit in drawers scenting underwear, rosaries gather friction, grief adheres to old toothbrushes, broken spectacles, roughly scribbled champagne corks and postcards from Egypt written in illegibly elegant script. The physical disappearance of someone is shocking. These objects absorb the after shocks of their leaving. As for the places where they lived; in old age homes a bucket of disinfectant, wide open windows to release the miasma of death and a lick of paint re-sanitise the venue for the next itinerant. Ownership may be complex in old age homes, but the simple certainties of death and departure compensate for it. I do not know the contractual details of her facility. I know there are places like these where inmates are expected to purchase a space that is recycled every time the current owner/s die. A safe investment that just keeps giving.
In First World countries we tend to pack the aged and infirm away when their maintenance outweighs their value. One must contribute positively to the GDP to warrant state concern. Otherwise, one finds oneself gradually removed from society. Folded up like well worn tablecloths and placed in the back of the linen cupboard, until the next Salvo’s run. In Third World economies, the aged are generally valued and, if not valued, at least respected. Those who struggle for material security understand the emotional and spiritual value of people. They know that dignity is priceless and owed to their parents who have struggled to hold onto it all of their lives. The aged are respected for being there, for having carried on, teaching their children that value lies in endurance, not assets. They build their lives on people, not money. They have community where individual well-being is everyone’s concern. We, on the other hand, are a loose collection of cocoons. Each of us spinning silk and blind to the world around us.
I knew a man once who did a brave thing. I did not understand it as such at the time. I was young and had not yet been called upon to endure anything more than my adolescent neuroses. He lived on a large piece of land. We flew over it once in a small plane. We had travelled in a straight line for ten minutes and all the time it was his land beneath us. It was beautiful, rugged, arid African Bush. The memory of it fills me with nostalgia. In the evenings Impala herds settled around a thorn tree near the home. He had resettled vultures that were endangered. One day he walked out into the bush, undressed and then shot himself in a place where he knew the vultures would be. I believe he was a brave man. In the end he understood a thing or two about real value.
She, the lady at the window, has draped over her knees a crocheted patchwork blanket. Coloured squares of lilac, blue, purple and pink are bordered by yellow. The palette of severe bruising. I’ve not seen her do anything but sit and look out of the window. I have willed her to lean forward, possibly smile but it feels like a prayer, more for my sake than hers.
Her curtains were drawn today. If tomorrow the windows are open wide, I will be sad.
Every town dweller maintains an oasis. A patch of grass, green plants; a garden. This is an unconscious ritual of hope. There is a desert a few hundred kilometres away to the East. The sea is 5 kilometres away to the west. Brutal summer heat sucks everything dry and twice a week, we fight back with water. It is an endless cycle. It is an apt metaphor for the short lives we live on a fast moving rock that turns on itself whilst circling a star that is dying a slow and glorious death.
We love and, if we are lucky, are loved back. A welcome parenthesis in the absurd text of our lives, If we are fortunate, is the gift of children. If they remain happy and healthy then we are doubly blessed. At some point the people we love begin to die and the grief caused by their leaving either draws us closer to the faith of our choice or illuminates the absurdity of the condition of being alive. Perhaps both? I live in a constant state of mourning. Acutely aware of the imminent demise of everyone, I feel in all moments the loss of those with whom I am walking on the beach, for whom I make a cup of tea, with whom I look up at the sky and draw from the stacks of cumulus some shape or face or meaning. I live with the pain of loss even when nothing is lost. I anticipate pain the way swallows anticipate rain. There is a joy and a heavy grief in seeing the quick dives and low sweeps of these delicate birds. Some are drawn to the sea whose constant rows of falling froth laugh at the littleness of our human fear of endings. I am all endings says the sea. I end all of the time and look at me, see how large I am and with what force I end. Then our own ending seems alright and even normal, usual.
Against the violent current of nihilism I water the grass, the plants or dig a hole and place into it something alive in the hope that it will grow after I am dead. Hope is difficult. Putting a foot onto the floor and then the other is sometimes the most positivity I can bring to a day. Yet, I do not consider myself a negative person. Beyond the front door I am all smiles and mischief. The ones I love bare the brunt of my contradictory nature. My home is the birthplace of my being and I am not yet fully formed. It is here that I may express my disgust at the absurdity of human existence. Here that I hate people and love my dogs; despise the world and love my wife and children. I will love and hate with passion. I empty the glass of my being so that I am able to go out into my classroom and teach empathy and compassion. I can do this because I need it most and because I hate my self at times and people and the condition of life does not mean that I hate my self or life or the condition of being alive.
I am establishing limits. I will no longer entertain the simple minded. Those who elevate dogma of any brand above simple humanity. I cannot entertain such nihilistic stupidity. My brand of nihilism is entirely different. I marvel at the infinite dance of atoms whose rhythm gave rise to me. I am in awe of night skies and ants and feel the cosmos reshuffle itself in the dying twitches of a bee on a windowsill. I am grateful, to the deepest recess of consciousness, for my life and the ones in it that I love. I am also mindful of the incessant grief that marks the boundary of my existence. I will not accept this without some act of rage. Doesn’t my rage against the absurdity of life confirm my deep attachment to it? I find living to be a precious and beautiful event. I am just pissed off at a very deep level that it must end. If one’s finger bleeds at finding a thorn on the stem of a rose, one does not assume the rose hates you. The pain is an anomaly I am still attempting to understand.
I was entranced by a bullfight I watched in Madrid one Sunday afternoon at Easter. It was a manifestation of my conflicted being; the personality of soul on display. Ten minutes is all it takes to represent life. Our wilful pride swells as we swagger boldly and well dressed into the world silently crying out “look at me, look at me! Am I not the finest thing that ever lived? Am I not splendid? There in the prime of our lovely and beautiful naiveté we say to ourselves ‘but this is easy. Why did our parents and their old friends warn us about life? It is not hard at all. It is marvellously simple and I am so grand.’ Then from nowhere a bull is unleashed and it is not just there it is heaving and powerful and wants to dig its horns into you. My God, something wants me dead! How can that be? I am too pretty and young and wonderful to die? Then there is the battle and this beast that is as beautiful as you must die, or you will die. Life becomes in a moment not the style of your walk or the angle of your smile at admirers; it is simply that if you do not choose an action you will die. Something always dies at the end of it. At least once it will be you. Until then we must learn to not be so arrogant, to understand that everyone is beautiful and that everyone has their bull.
Quiet as brick and effortless as breath you slipped your soft form and went, leaving just this delicate presence that rocks a little from my own exhilation.
Did you suffer? Do moths suffer as people do? Was your leaving as tranquil as your slack wings suggest? We’re not all that different you know, our species. Yours and mine both seek out light and finally settle unnoticed in the shadows. Here, looking at you on this ledge, in this public toilet, your mausoleum, I offer a few minutes of silence. Dead quiet. Did you try to enter this light bulb? Did moths live longer before electricity? Chasing the sun is easier than gate-crashing closer light. It takes longest to see what is closest to you.
I’m not in the habit of talking to dead insects, that would be absurd. Perhaps whenever we talk into an absence, we are really just talking to ourselves and maybe real people we knew who are now also on the edge of our memories, our world. Death reminds us that life existed where it no longer does. A brutal irony.
It is the brevity of life that gives it some worth but also bridles the heart with such unbearable pain. Maybe that is why I’m having this conversation with you? If I cannot pause for you, what will I stop for? If the stuff that once bound us, life, goes out of something little, surely it’s as sad as when it leaves the larger among us? My life is as little as yours in the context of the world. We may even be brothers? There is vast chasm between your world and mine. There is language for one thing, I do not know yours. But, whatever the differences my friend, we depended on air together. The only real difference is that I still breathe and you are simply still.
The last time we spoke I struggled to understand your words. A day later you were moved to ICU and two days later you died. But there were other, more important words that passed between us. We spoke often and for that I am grateful. There is a sense of closure in the love we knew we had for each other. I feel remorse at being over 6000km away when you were folding your life away. I wish I could have been there to hold your hand, just once. Sean did that for both of us. I know you would remind me that geography does not alter the state of the soul, that you knew we loved you dearly. We did, do. Now I experience the real cost of migration. You made our leaving easier by supporting it. You were brave that way. I also know it played its part in breaking your heart. What a big heart you had.
I shall visit Sean in April and together we will with care and all the gentleness we can muster, trace your life in the belongings you left behind. There will be letters we wrote to you as children, hand made gifts from your granchildren … you kept everything. Archeology of the soul. Memories will re-establish your beautiful presence and we will cry. We will encounter your absence in every room of the home. We will embrace your presence which is now only found inside of us. It seems darker and roomier inside, colder. I will feed your birds and water your plants and talk to you. We will laugh. In the laughter we will recall one of the finest gifts you ever gave your sons, the ability to find in the bleakest hour of the day a reason to smile.
This was meant to be a letter of thanks and goodbye, some sort of eulogy shared. Like our lives it is imperfect, a poor mirror of the vast emptiness your leaving has left. The words do not express my heart, they never do. At best, all they can do is point towards someone they are trying to embrace and whisper the words one last time, ‘I love you mom’.
So there I was … am? I have no memory of my origin, only of being and it seems that I have always been. I feel that I have been here forever. Certainly, I am not as I was before, or will be. The ‘I’ who speaks now feels infinitely connected with everything that was here, is here or will be here. Something galvanises me to pronounce that this has always been the case. Still, there is a morbid tendency under current circumstances to contemplate ‘not’ being. This is unsettling. It is contrary to the nature of existence. It is traumatic and I fear this only hastens corrosion. I cannot fathom that in the course of my existence change has been so brutal, so sudden and yet always anticipated. I am all contradiction now. Resigned and angry, holding on and letting go. Time confounds the mind. A degree of material degeneration is expected, annihilation is altogether another matter. Consciousness feels ageless, an elegant sensitivity held hostage by imperfect design; a rotten receptacle. In every sense it is a degrading process. Before this moment, yesterday or last year or thirty years ago I was different. I am not sure when ‘before’ is or was? What has changed?
There has been some … rearrangement, shall we say. When does one begin to speak of oneself in the past tense? Memory is a wicked joke. Once I was not as decayed as I appear to you now. My clean lines sliced land and sky with cold precision. Sharp angles framed vast sections of smooth steel that were caressed in places to a polish where men stood, clung as they worked, held as they smoked. Rust began slowly. It settled at first as a warm patina of benign dust that at first light cast a hazy aura of smoked auburn on my form. Beautiful but deathly, subtle as smoke. Then this. Jagged edges, broken frame, an eroding core. It crept out from the inside, was it always there? I was solid. I felt solid. I passed through decades, almost a century. I never considered time a real player in my narrative. Was I arrogant?
Here is the surprise. I never noticed the decay until it seemed, without warning, to be everywhere. I was forever new and then I was in a heap. There were people everywhere then. Busy, busy. I was the centre of that activity.
Science softens the blow. It calls this the conservation of energy. I am undergoing my final conversion, becoming increasingly transformed. This conversion has the sense of displacement. It is a difficult conversation. So, the atoms which constitute my awareness, my consciousness … where do they go? Does it all go back into the earth? Is this why on quiet days as the wind blows over me, I can almost feel it speak to me? In the earth around me are the voices of the previously converted; the displaced, the more thoroughly eroded ones. We should, if it is our mode, walk more gently on the ground. We are treading on those gone before us. I should have anticipated this. I did. What does one do with the knowledge that you will end? Anticipation is futile. The end comes anyway.
Against the nihilistic current of our existence we can only do what we have always done, stand fast. Stand until we fall. Then we hope for a soft landing, perhaps an acknowledgement of our having been here at all. Even that is a vanity; new things will be built, or not. Expecting Remembrance is a vanity. Memory evades the young but takes hold for a time on the near falling ones. When I finally crumble, I hope I remember to laugh at the absurdity of the rising and falling that is existence.
Sometimes I feel like a lumbering grouse panicked by hunters popping buckshot. Friends are falling all around me and I despair. When friends die we talk of them as having passed because we cannot bear the finality of their loss. It reminds us that we too shall pass, that everything passes. Heaped on top of the anxieties of making mortgage payments, managing credit card debt and earning enough money for present needs as well as for retirement-the loss of people we love seems grossly unjust. It feels tragic even though tragedy, strictly speaking, is reserved for significant lives and if we are honest, life has a way of making the best of us feel utterly insignificant. The news of death generates (sometimes briefly, sometimes for longer) an existential survey. We review our lives, measure our accomplishments; we try to quantify success and qualify our presence. We do this because in the rush of daily duties, lists, must do’s and have to’s we forget that we will die. We all seem to understand that the nature of life is the ever looming and implicit clause of brevity. What we struggle with is that a life lived in servitude to employers does not guarantee the fulfilment of dreams which have sustained the countless days, months, years on the treadmill of economic survival. It does not feel right that a lifetime of service is cut short with such indifference to the soul that has endured bending to the callous god of material sustenance.
Maybe we busy ourselves more from a desire to avoid such painful inventories of the soul or maybe because exhaustion makes us feel that we are accomplishing something? I don’t get more sentimental with age, I get angrier at what I am coming to regard as a fundamental flaw in the design of the human mechanism, the body that is at once capable of such grandeur and beauty is also susceptible to the degrading onset of decay, that we call old age. It’s not old age; it’s a catastrophe. Against the backdrop of this rage there is, ironically, the emergence of a gentler voice that looks at the absurdity of the human condition and smiles because there seems little else to do in the face of annihilation. This is what makes us so remarkable, so grand and so incredibly lovable and worthy of respect and admiration. With our backs against the wall, we humans do not give up. We go hell-for-leather into the abyss and I think for that alone, we are a bloody marvellous species. I am proud to be human. I am above all proud of my friends, grateful to my family; exceptionally humbled by the love I receive on a daily basis. Because of that, loser or hero, something or nothing, I don’t regret a second of my dappled existence. With every ounce of sincerity I can muster, I say these words and hope they are heard as true and honest, despite the obvious negativities of life, I am happy to be alive and to have lived. I try to reserve the anger and channel its energy into activities that are life affirming. Henry Kissinger once said: “nothing clarifies the mind like the lack of alternatives.” There is no alternative to death but life and therefore those of us who have it should make every effort to use it with conscious appreciation and if we can do that, the living of it may someday resemble elegance. We may be awkward buckshot-dodging grouse, but with a bit of luck, some days we may feel like swans.