The first elegy

My dear friend Jenny suffered the loss of her mother this weekend.  Having battled with Alzheimer’s for some time, and most notably having reached the place where the whole of her person had been lost, we knew time was short.

The family had already been called to town and made aware that little time remained.  Deciding not to force food or treatment on her, something that would only have dragged out the suffering of her body, a body her mind had already left behind, months turned to weeks, weeks to days, and finally, days to hours.

Saturday evening, held by loved ones, she passed away quietly and peacefully.

Yet such a loss is never easy.

I wondered what I might write, what I might say.

What I finally realized is that the words I felt had already been penned long ago by one greater than I.  Instead of grasping feebly for sentiments that drip with heavy words, let me instead share “Die erste Elegie” (“The First Elegy”) from Duineser Elegien by Rainer Maria Rilke (called Duino Elegies in English).

This is called “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel” (“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic”).

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic
Orders? And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry
of a darkened sobbing. Ah, who then can
we make use of? Not Angels: not men,
and the resourceful creatures see clearly
that we are not really at home
in the interpreted world. Perhaps there remains
some tree on a slope, that we can see
again each day: there remains to us yesterday’s street,
and the thinned-out loyalty of a habit
that liked us, and so stayed, and never departed.
Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind full of space
wears out our faces — whom would she not stay for,
the longed-for, gentle, disappointing one, whom the solitary heart
with difficulty stands before. Is she less heavy for lovers?
Ah, they only hide their fate between themselves.
Do you not know yet? Throw the emptiness out of your arms
to add to the spaces we breathe; maybe the birds
will feel the expansion of air, in more intimate flight.

Yes, the Spring-times needed you deeply. Many a star
must have been there for you so you might feel it. A wave
lifted towards you out of the past, or, as you walked
past an open window, a violin
gave of itself. All this was their mission.
But could you handle it? Were you not always,
still, distracted by expectation, as if all you experienced,
like a Beloved, came near to you? (Where could you contain her,
with all the vast strange thoughts in you
going in and out, and often staying the night.)
But if you are yearning, then sing the lovers: for long
their notorious feelings have not been immortal enough.
Those, you almost envied them, the forsaken, that you
found as loving as those who were satisfied. Begin,
always as new, the unattainable praising:
think: the hero prolongs himself, even his falling
was only a pretext for being, his latest rebirth.
But lovers are taken back by exhausted Nature
into herself, as if there were not the power
to make them again. Have you remembered
Gastara Stampa sufficiently yet, that any girl,
whose lover has gone, might feel from that
intenser example of love: ‘Could I only become like her?’
Should not these ancient sufferings be finally
fruitful for us? Isn’t it time that, loving,
we freed ourselves from the beloved, and, trembling, endured
as the arrow endures the bow, so as to be, in its flight,
something more than itself? For staying is nowhere.

Voices, voices. Hear then, my heart, as only
saints have heard: so that the mighty call
raised them from the earth: they, though, knelt on
impossibly and paid no attention:
such was their listening. Not that you could withstand
God’s voice: far from it. But listen to the breath,
the unbroken message that creates itself from the silence.
It rushes towards you now, from those youthfully dead.
Whenever you entered, didn’t their fate speak to you,
quietly, in churches in Naples or Rome?
Or else an inscription exaltedly impressed itself on you,
as lately the tablet in Santa Maria Formosa.
What do they will of me? That I should gently remove
the semblance of injustice, that slightly, at times,
hinders their spirits from a pure moving-on.

It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the earth,
to no longer practice customs barely acquired,
not to give a meaning of human futurity
to roses, and other expressly promising things:
no longer to be what one was in endlessly anxious hands,
and to set aside even one’s own
proper name like a broken plaything.
Strange: not to go on wishing one’s wishes. Strange
to see all that was once in place, floating
so loosely in space. And it’s hard being dead,
and full of retrieval, before one gradually feels
a little eternity. Though the living
all make the error of drawing too sharp a distinction.
Angels (they say) would often not know whether
they moved among living or dead. The eternal current
sweeps all the ages, within it, through both the spheres,
forever, and resounds above them in both.

Finally they have no more need of us, the early-departed,
weaned gently from earthly things, as one outgrows
the mother’s mild breast. But we, needing
such great secrets, for whom sadness is often
the source of a blessed progress, could we exist without them?
Is it a meaningless story how once, in the grieving for Linos,
first music ventured to penetrate arid rigidity,
so that, in startled space, which an almost godlike youth
suddenly left forever, the emptiness first felt
the quivering that now enraptures us, and comforts, and helps.

I love you, sweet Jenny, and I am so terribly sorry for your loss.

And when we say goodbye

A close-up of Grendel as he tries to rest (218_1884)

Beneath a cover of sunlight he lay squinty-eyed and trembling, his new world ever changing, ever crumbling.

What has become of the grand master of the house?  What blight tears away at his spirit with such abominable disregard for this majestic survivor?

At the nexus between what was and what is to be rests that which is.  For Grendel, the threads connecting past to future weave a wicked tapestry indeed.

Weakness becomes him, claims at every turn yet another piece of the invincible soul that once was.

As the cloak of his days wraps endlessly around him, the pattern knitted strikes me as unbecoming one so beautiful, one whose tiger stripes demand respect, whose green eyes glint with the fire of timeless splendor.

Yet even master predators must give way to the cosmos.

He throws about his essence the drapery of one who has suffered much, seen far, lived superbly and, most importantly, experienced true happiness.

A home full of love surrounded him at all times, a home with familiars respectful of his dominance and longing for but one more moment in the light of his being.

Only now in the dimming twilight do any of us comprehend what will be lost.

The once unconquerable patriarch, the master of all, now scarcely hides his tremors, wistfully swells in challenge only to cower under the spread of his perpetual decline.

His first year colored the cloth that would envelop his existence for all the days to come.  One ailment after another beset him.

And in my quest to manage the ills of his flesh did I also lace into the years the very demon that likely would strike him down.

I care not for more tests, more examinations bent on finding the next cause and, therefore, the next solution.

Causes have effects.  Effects brought us to where we are today.

Mind his suffering, mind his health, mind his well-being, but subject this handsome creature to more devilish fiends that will do nothing more but prolong the agony?

Absolutely not.

Long have I held that in life it is quality that matters most, not quantity.  What is living for a hundred years if the last twenty are spent being sponge-bathed and spoon-fed in a facility where true living has no meaning?

Why should it be different for my children?

Grendel has fewer days ahead than he does behind, a bridge we all cross at some point in our lives.  He faces the reality of his body’s continuing battle against his will.

Would that I could give him some of the life in me, that I might conquer the inevitable by carving from my own self a relief capable of undoing the pattern that life’s loom has woven for him.

But instead I reach out, offer him the adoration that brings a purr through the shaking, share a bit of time in the sun with one who deserves more than he has received.

Perspectives

The dappling of sunlight upon the stony ground beneath a small tributary, unnoticed designs writ upon the brow of the Earth by way of a magic no more complicated than water’s ability to focus and defocus light simultaneously.

Sunlight dapples upon the stone floor beneath water streaming through a small tributary (20080426_04782)

Does understanding the cause of such beauty somehow taint its loveliness?

The answer rests in your perspective.

The remnant of a bygone era dredged to the light of day by digging, the very act of bringing to the surface the secrets which lie buried beneath.  Rested upon sand and stone, my eyes lingered upon this relic for longer than anticipated, and certainly no other noticed it.

A pull-tab from a drink can resting atop the stony and sandy remnants of plumbing work (164_6421)

What intrigue explodes from nothing more complicated than workmen doing a job?

The answer rests in your perspective.

A man wanders to the edge of the creek and pauses, his mind a jumbled puzzle of thought and emotion, his whole world outlined by the belief that he is isolated and deserted.  Yet he is not abandoned even in his despair.  An American coot paddles close to share in that aloneness, to offer up the silent gift of understanding.

A man crouches on the bank of a creek at White Rock Lake, deep in lonely thoughts with only a single American coot (Fulica americana) to keep him company (20080202_01772)

Or is it that the bird hopes for a handout from the stranger, wishes for a bit of food to be tossed out as a treat?

The answer rests in your perspective.

Like a nightmare from a Hitchcock film, a gull demands attention, its mouth agape, its wings held just right to capture the wind, its body floating effortlessly atop the hidden tower of magic that allows it to do that thing we humans envy most: fly.  It brags in the resounding voice of those who can.

A juvenile ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) in flight as it demands a meal (20080114_01228_p)

Could it be this display means more or less?  Could it be this bird has reasons unannounced for its profoundly eloquent display?

The answer rests in your perspective.

Upon a lonely mountaintop rests this small turtle, its form reduced against the backdrop of a titanic log that dwarfs the young reptile until it becomes minute, insignificant, barely noticeable.

A small red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) atop a proportionally massive log (20080405_02969)

How could such a diminutive creature rise to such heights?

The answer rests in your perspective.

What murder hid in suburbia’s grasp?  What demons lurked before picket fences within the confines of winter laid barren and dry for all the world to see?  And do such monsters still exist, still cry their raucous cries and beat their black wings to darken the sky?

An American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) searching through winter grass in front of a classic white picket fence (20080203_01879)

Or is it but a crow seeking a bit of nourishment from dry grass just across the street from me as I sat on the porch enjoying the warmth of a cold day?

The answer rests in your perspective.

I said this once:

The world through eyes other than our own becomes a different thing.  When seen from someplace else, we become alien, different, unrecognizable.

That’s because we see things as we are, not as they happen.

Want to know what your life is like?  Ask those who observe it, participate in it yet do not own it.

We are what we do, not what we feel, not what we believe, not what we think.

Tinted by my own sense of self, life as I know it becomes unfamiliar when viewed from a perspective not defined by me.

Perception is a reality to which I subscribe.  No greater truth has any person than this: The real world is as we see it, and we see things as we are, not as they truly exist.  No greater power has politics or religion than this nature of humanity.

Our perspective draws its lifeblood from our perception, perception draws its lifeblood from heart and mind, and heart and mind draw their lifeblood from the whole of who we are, from experience to attitude to belief to spirit to will, and to places deep and dark and dangerous, places magnificent and memorable and meaningful.

We miss the stars because we do not see them for all the harm we do to the night sky, yet we do not miss the night sky for we have gone so long without it that it no longer matters.  In our missing of the stars we admit our lack of appreciation for what has never been known, what has been absent for too long.

And therein rests our perception, our perspectives.

Would that we could grow beyond this encumbrance, beyond these shackles that bind reality to a place far away from where we live.

Winter in the Boulevard

Stark tree limbs stand against a mostly cloudy sky (20080309_02467)

The trees down the boulevard stand naked in thought,
Their abundant summery wordage silenced, caught
In the grim undertow; naked the trees confront
Implacable winter’s long, cross-questioning brunt.

— D.H. Lawrence, “Winter in the Boulevard”

Soon barren limbs stand against cold skies, the trees having lost their summer clothes in trade for winter’s stark embrace.

Soon cold winds blow from the north, ushers carrying forth the season of bleak refrains.

Soon that which is verdant gives way to that which is desolate, hibernation of life in many forms taking away from the breath of nature.

Soon dry leaves blow in a sound we all recognize.

Soon chills beset us lest we robe ourselves in the woolen armor of winter dress.

Soon fires burn in fireplaces and furnaces roar to fight back the cold.

Soon…

Soon there will be winter in the boulevard.

I can’t wait.