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Empty Chairs

It is coming onto to Passover. A month ago I invited people over to share seder with us. The first time in ten years. More years. The first time I have celebrated passover since Lee died. The first time I have written died instead of left. The anniversary of my first year in my new house.

I asked Lisa if she wanted to have Passover in our new home. She said yes. She was excited. That was all I needed.

We used to have a house full of people. In the haggadah, the book that has the order of the seder, the Passover celebratory supper, it says we recline on this night. It is one of the four questions asked by the youngest child. Mah nishtanah, ha-laylah ha-zeh,mi-kol ha-leylot. Why is tonight different from all other nights? Why do we recline tonight when all other nights we sit straight? We recline to represent our freedom, the freedom from bondage. In our house there was no choice but to recline. Forty-two people in one very small house left us sitting, reclining, leaning and otherwise enjoying the story of Passover on the floor, leaning against the sofa, on the sofa, at makeshift tables, draped over each other, waiting for the Angel of Death to pass us over..

Each we did this, and people would come. Students who could not get home would hear about it through Hillel, the Jewish student group, at UF. From Santa Fe Community College. Neighbours. Friends.Jews, Christians, Pagans, Buddhists. Everyone brings something. We tell the story of Spring, of rebirth and renewal, because passover is, at the root, a Spring holy-day. We tell of release from bondage, real and metaphoric, and how those who have been slaves but are now free must then reach down to others, extend a hand, to help lift them to freedom. How those who have been freed must never enslave another. A holy-day of social action, equality, and freedom.

I’d even take red streamer paper and cover the outside doorposts and lentice-piece, as the old story says they were painted with the blood of the sacrificed lamb, to tell the Angel of Death to pass over our home. There would be no death here tonight.

Some days earlier we had met Joyce. And she was invited. Her first time in our home for the woman with whom we had become instant fast-friends, and not even a place to sit. There would be no death here tonight.

Sef and I baked matzah, the unleavened bread, the bread of haste, and prepared the house. The seder plate was set. People arrived. We told stories, sang songs, ate bitter herbs, broke matzah, tasted salt water, enjoyed charoset, tolerated horseradish on, and those of use who did not like it, made fun of those of us who enjoyed the gefilte fish. We hid the afikomen (a small piece of matzah) for the children to find, for there were many children there, including our own, and we left a cup of wine for Elijah, in case he should arrive at our door. For Elijah, and all those who are missing, being missed, absent. Metaphoric. Abstract.
This year we have invited people. Most have not responded. One person said she understood this was an honor, and, with appreciation, told me she would be away. Others just said they’d see. They don’t understand – it isn’t game-night. It isn’t just a friendly invitation to come over for a drink. It’s Passover. It’s a different world, it feels like. I don’t know how they don’t get it. But, also, I don’t know how to explain it and have no real desire to.

I know the right people will be there. Lisa. Arlene. Family. That is family. They are family. The nextdoor neighbours will be there. The children are far away. Anyone else, it seems not. There will be no need to recline this Passover.

But there are people who would be there. And for them, the empty places are no longer metaphor. No longer abstract, but painfully, concretely, empty.

Joyce will not be there. She is dying. Close to death. Close enough that she has been visited by Lee, who sits with her. Two empty chairs.

The Angel of Death is a myth. Or, if not, certainly being able to protect loved ones from its grasp is most certainly. Nothing painted over the door will work. No feng shui mirror will reflect it. No prayers will avert it. Death comes.

This Passover, as we are celebrating freedom, I’ll be noticing the empty chairs. And I’ll be thinking, while we are alive, do something with that freedom. We must. Because nothing will protect us. Nothing will stop death. Old age is never guaranteed, only death, at any time.

This is what I’ll be telling myself so I can, the best I can, turn the empty chairs into something more meaningful than symbols of loss, vacuity, grief. Because I suspect there will be many more empty chairs for me to get used to. More cups of wine to pour that will not be sipped. More memories to step around, to not become lost in, as I open my eyes for each coming dawn, go about my days, close my eyes in the dark nights.

Or maybe I’ll be an empty chair, a cup of wine, a quiet moment.

This Passover I will not be covering the doorposts. There is no need. The Angel doesn’t care. Come or go, we’ll celebrate. With life and death, we’ll celebrate. With love, we’ll celebrate, while we can. And lift our glasses to each and every empty chair and know there is one thing the Angel of Death cannot kill.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2019 in Culture, Family, philosophy, Religion

 

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You Almost Died

Today several times
You almost died
Without even knowing it
Disaster nearly struck

On your way to or from
There was the car
You didn’t see
Swerving around you
Recklessly

On the street were
Myriad near misses
And close calls as
You went about

Running errands
Among the people
You turned your head
Just before the cough
That would have

Laid you low
Along with the multiple
Diseases looking to latch
Onto to you and
The carrier who stayed home

Because she felt too ill
To go out or
The man who chose to
Leave the gun

In the case or
Took it out
Only on himself
Instead of the world
And you were

Unaware of all but
One you did notice that
Left you shaking
And whispering thanks.

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2019 in Poetry, Uncategorized

 

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Masks

I buried your masks
Today, in the warm sun,
In the shade of the oaks,
Where one day
There will be laughter,
Where the squirrels play,
Where the woodpecker nests,
Where the songbirds drop seeds.
First the gauze and plaster mold
That rested against your face,
Then the plaster decorated
As though you were a queen.

Now that there is a house
I am safe in,
I can stay in, and
No one can make me leave,
I can bury them.

A deep hole and a kiss
Longer than expected—
The contour of your lips,
A pause, a deep breath—
And no words.
There is nothing left to say.
Everything said
Has been said before.

I had thought to bury them
Under the plumeria,
Though you always loved trees
Far more than flowers.

But I might plant some flowers anyway.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2018 in Family, Poetry

 

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Something Holy

I heard the jingling of a collar last night. Throughout the house, the tag against tag. I could hear them jangling from the denim in the cadence of her jaunt, side to side, side to side.

I looked outside. No dog. Certainly none inside. Back to bed, then, the jingling toward the room, side of the bed, stopped.  I slept well.

I can’t remember when she left. A year? Two? But I remember her eyes. And the sound of her heart.  As well as I remember her gutteral moan and her whistle. The rhythm of her step. How her face fit perfectly in the curve under my knee when she leaned into me. And how she looked at me when I knew she wanted it over.  Her eyes, if they had been human, could not have made them more holy. img_20160707_10240101

Something Holy

I’ll find something holy in this.
In the blood and the vomit,
The urine and sad almond eyes.
Bodies come from the Earth,
And these are of the body.
So I will find something holy in this.

I will find something holy in the
Seizures, tetany, drugs,
The cost in dollars and sense.
In time, I’ll find something holy in this.

I will find something holy in the
Far-off stare, in the long breaths,
In the scent of wheat because
She always smelled like wheat
And was the color of golden bread
And, certainly, there is something holy in that.

I’ll find something holy in the last breath,
The closing of the eyes that won’t reopen,
The beat that slows, stops,
Leaves memory. And certainly,
There is something holy in that.

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2018 in Family, Poetry

 

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Object Permanence

There is a story you’d tell,
winter evenings,
of parents with linked hands,
a chain down the steep iced-hill,
a wall held on to
by the children going to school.
One by one, each making
his or her way, over the ice,
parent to parent, top to bottom,
slippery to safe, home to school.
And when the day was done,
back again, hand over hand,
climbing the hill,
school to home again,
in the safety of
parent to parent to parent.

When school was cancelled,
sledding from the top of the
snowy street to the bottom
where the traffic sped passed
with no idea to stop
and you’d say
how did we survive our childhood.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in Poetry

 

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I can Hear the Angles

I can hear the angels
Sing songs only the angels
Sing songs of being
Neither here nor there
Angels and those
Close to death
Sing songs often sweetly
Sing songs below hearing
For all those
Neither here nor there
Hearing the songs of
Angels and those
Near to being angels
Sing songs I hear
Everywhere.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2017 in philosophy, Poetry, psychology, Religion

 

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Let’s Burn Something Down Tonight

Let’s burn something down tonight.
Let’s find something old,
Something we used to think
We could not survive
Without, something significant. Let’s
Set it on fire.
An edifice we marveled at,
Something we looked up to,
Tall and strong, in
Admiration of power,
Importance, and potency.
Something we knew was forever,
Now, wondering
Why we ever thought
We couldn’t do without it?
Let’s burn it down.

Let’s set fire to something
That used to be the foundation of
Our being. Something
That would never occur to us
Could sink, erode,
Decay beneath us,
Leave our feet with no solid ground.
Something we built our entire lives on
But fell away. Let’s watch what’s built on it
List and lean,
Topple and crash by our own hand
Instead of the slow destruction of
Sand and rust.
We can be our own gods,
And end it with our own hands.
Let’s burn it down.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2016 in philosophy, Poetry, Social

 

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When I Am Alone At Night

When I am alone at night,
When I go to bed,
In my head,
I disperse my goods.
I write notes,
Letters, long, detailed.
I imagine deep long rest,
Wonder if I’ve had enough.

When I am alone at night
I roll myself against the walls,
Scratch, stretch,
Rub, rock,
Hunger for sensation,
Pray for contact,
Want for touch,
Wonder if I’m here long enough.

When I am alone at night
I fail to create ambitions.
In my head,
I disperse my goods,
I write notes,
Look at bottles,
Estimate pills,
Wonder if there are enough.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Culture, Poetry, psychology, Suicide

 

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State of Being

Verbs are words that show a state of being—present, past, future. Transient or continuous. When we use the verb “was/were,” we mean something that has passed. It happened in the past. It is done. It is over. When we use the verb “is/are” we speak of something that is present. Something that exists now, current. An action that is going on right now. This moment.

For the purpose of my question, tense is not important. Past participle, continuous, perfect—none of these important to my question. What is important are simple tenses. Past and present.  

And so I ask, why do we say someone is dead?

We can say someone is alive. To be alive is a continuous state. Continuous, until it ends, either abruptly, or slowly, slowly over a period of time. Suddenly, or counting down, day, day, day. One hand. A few fingers. Done. Present becomes past very easily.

Someone is alive. Then they are not alive. But they are not dead. If we insist on using present tense we should say something that is an actual ongoing state. Something that is active. Her body is in the ground. She is decomposing. Her ashes are disappearing into the snowy stream.

Death is not an active state. It is not something someone does. It is the end of doing. She is alive. She is laughing. She is loving. She is healing. She is holding your hand, raising children. She is putting her feet on the dashboard on a long ride, talking, laughing, singing.  Under your hand, her leg is warm.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2016 in Culture, Family, philosophy, psychology, Social

 

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Halfway Through March

When I woke this morning, I was afraid I could not write. I felt it was gone. It, whatever that is, felt absent. But during the day’s discussion, in the three minutes between classes, in moments during planning, the topic of poets came up. I found the poem “We Bring Democracy To The Fish,” by Donald Hall. Don’t blame me for the way the title is capitalized – blame Donald. Anyway, he was Laureate until that poem was published. Then he was Poet Non Grata. He and the Dixie Chicks hung out together looking for work.

Distressed Haiku had this line: “I finished with April/halfway through March.”  His wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, had died in the month of April, 1995. That line. That one line. I have said that myself, nearly word for word. And I was writing again. But would I ever write of anything else?

I ask that, yet I have. I have. But, time and time again, I return to it. Why? Because one doesn’t go on. One doesn’t heal. One continues, with the wound. With the weight. One may be happy, one may be loved, and one may be content, one may have a wonderful life. I certainly do. But that is still there, because it is part of our lives. For those in this “club we’re in that I wouldn’t wish anyone to belong to,” as a friend of mine put it, one doesn’t go back to the old way of being, but creates a new normal around the space.

Everything is made of space. So, I guess, I’m still writing about everything. I guess.

 

Halfway Through March

It is second period.
I have been discussing
Poetry with Mr. Wolf.
Poets, appreciated but
Never paid well,
Never paid attention to,
Paid heed, respected,
Honored, yes: the Poets Laureate
Paid, at first, in wine.
Chaucer paid in
Gallons of wine.

Name bridges after them,
Put up markers roadside,
Have them inaugurate
The president, but don’t
Pay them enough to
Leave their teaching posts
So they can develop
Their craft without
Daily worries of bills due.

The discussion moved to
Donald Hall. One year only
He held his post.
He published
“We Bring Democracy To The Fish.”
So long and thanks for all that.

But now it is period three,
Donald Hall is in my brain,
So I am reading.
Students working,
Teacher reading, because
I can barely think
Anything else.

I didn’t know
He lost his wife.
Twenty-six years,
Cancer comes and
She goes.

I had always pictured him
Alone. Solitary, New Hampshire
Snow. Writing.

But he wrote of
Her leaving and
What was left,
He wondered if he
Would ever write of
Anything else.
Here, listen to his
Distressed Haiku:
“Will Hall ever write
lines that do anything
but whine and complain?”

Here is the Universal.
Here is the experience
Of the creative. Of those
Who take everything
Of their lives, of their
Surroundings,
Turn it into something

To understand.
Make the internal life
External, visible, palpable.
Make something with
No hands reach out,
Shake you, shock you,
Leave you thinking,
Understanding what you
Did not understand before.

Make the solitary
The common experience.
Remind me
I’m not the only one.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2016 in Books, Culture, Education, philosophy, Poetry, psychology

 

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