THOUGHTS ON THE SECOND DAY OF THE SECOND MONTH OF THE YEAR 2020

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series

February 2nd, 2020

I slid under the covers and my comforter last night, waiting to slip into sleep. I had just finished a perfect book—a posthumous compilation of essays by American writer Brian Doyle, titled One Long River of Song.  After first reading about it in the New York Times, I went looking for it online, where it was unavailable.

It seems now that booksellers had underestimated demand for this title, or that the timing of things was off, and demand had shown up a little before supply. Because the author was unknown to me, and because he was described, here and there, as a “Catholic writer” (I still don’t understand why anyone bothered to make that distinction), I let things go for several weeks, thinking that maybe it wasn’t for me. But it niggled at the back of my mind and so, shortly thereafter, I tried again to order it, and was happy to learn that it was now stocked all over the place.

I want you to know that for me, One Long River of Song is a perfect book; and by that I mean that it found its way into my hands at precisely the moment in my life when I needed it the most, when I was most ready to absorb its lessons and its copious amounts of joy and elevation, poignancy, honesty and wisdom.

Brian Doyle died four years ago, at the age of 60, of brain cancer and so, as I read the many dozens of short essays in the book that Doyle’s colleagues and family worked very hard at collating and bringing together under one cover, I knew that the flowing, passionate, exuberant, funny, earnest, hopeful,  occasionally wrathful and chastising, soulful and startlingly honest voice speaking inside my head as I read each essay was, in fact, no longer here on this earth. But of course, it is, by virtue of the writing this glorious human being left behind. As often happens when a book discovered randomly turns out to be a treasure, I read through it very quickly, in less than a week, and even managed, during those few days, to re-read many of the essays that reached deepest into me. And I had the shocking thought: I have lived longer than he did.

Michael Bennallack Hart (b. 1946)
Stonehenge

I know, now, that I will keep it on my night table—close by. Always. And I know that it will help me through the harsh episodes that surely lie ahead (as they do for all of us except that with stage 4 cancer, they loom; they are adamant).

Once I finished the last pages of the book last night, which included four pages of acknowledgements ( ! ), I lay in bed holding it close, passing my hand over its smooth cover, finding it difficult to separate from it. As I write this last phrase, I know it sounds strange, but what can I say? It is filled with thoughts, feelings and a spirituality based on joy and humility—not humbleness, Doyle was effusive and forceful—that are helpful to me and resonant. They feel very close to sacred. There is an energy emanating from Doyle’s words that speaks on a frequency that I need to remain connected to.

I think that he may have known, in a whispering premonitory way, that he would die quite young (though his parents lived long enough to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary!), as one of his older brothers did, at the age of 64. It is woven through everything he wrote—this sense that life is glorious and bristling and swift. His life and his writing were one long prayer of gratitude.

 

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Among the many dimensions of my life that preoccupy me more since my diagnosis (or maybe it’s just that I have more quiet time to stop, consider, meditate), is spirituality, and I wonder if anyone reaches the end of their life with beliefs and a sense of the transcendent that have remained unchanged through the decades. It seems unlikely, even near impossible, but of course I look at current events and see so many communities that have become more rigid, dogmatic and even calcified in their systems of belief, that I don’t know where I fit in and am not sure that I want to belong anywhere.

Neilson, M. E.; Sky, Hills (Autumn Evening); NHS Lothian (Edinburgh & Lothian Health Foundation); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sky-hills-autumn-evening-184589

Like Brian Doyle, I was raised a Catholic. As time passed, it became clear to me that the faith of my parents was no longer mine. For a very long time now, it has seemed crucial to me that my spirituality should be fluid enough to be able to embrace and integrate the discoveries of modern cosmology and science; that it should also be attuned to the voices of the mystics of the past and those among us, all of whom are able to distill life’s truths, retaining and sharing only that which is essential;  that it should draw from Nature; and that it should be universal and unifying. After so many years teaching students from all over the world, with such a wide variety of cultures, languages and systems of belief, I’ve come to understand that there is always a core spirituality that binds us, that is expressed through love and joy and light… How we give, how we laugh together, how we see.

But where does that leave me, in times of weakness, fear and suffering? I can no longer speak to a personal Deity, the way I did when I was young, speaking to God the Creator, or the Spirit, or the personal Jesus…My understanding of the universe, thanks, in part, to the writings of people like Alan Lightman and the philosopher physicists, astrophysicists and quantum physicists of the 20th and 21st centuries, has opened me up to the notion of noetic experiences, but even more simply, to the necessity of a different language to talk about matters of the spirit, of the soul. And yet, the need to pray and to reach out to a force beyond me is still there, though personal entreaty never did feel right: there was always that feeling inside me, even as a young child, that so many people other than me deserved the ear of a listening God.

Since my cancer diagnosis, especially when the sun has set and the day is winding down, and I am more aware of my solitude, I do find myself speaking silently to the vastness, sending messages out that begin with “Dear Universe…”. Sometimes, the repetition of prayers learned in childhood such as the “Hail Mary” and the “Our Father” serve the same function as any mantra (it was lovely to discover recently that sometimes, Simon does the same thing, over in his bedroom). I wonder if I might feel comfortable sitting in a circle among Quakers, in shared silence.

Since my cancer diagnosis, I have felt a great need to reach out beyond myself to tap into the energy, the source of Love—that love that is all around me and lifts my spirits and brings me a deep sense of connection to others. It has made itself felt most pressingly when I’ve experienced feelings of bone deep, heart swelling gratitude.

Mi-Young Choi, Enlightenment

MY FEAR OF ETERNITY

Artist Vincent van Gogh
Year 1889
Catalogue
F612 JH1731
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 73.7 cm × 92.1 cm (29 in × ​36 1⁄4 in)
Location Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT” series

There was a time, in my childhood, when I often lay awake at night, silent as the grave, perhaps listening to the breathing of my sister Marie, asleep in the bed next to mine. Hers was against the wall of my parents’ room—which may have given her all kinds of things to dream about—and mine was against the opposite wall, right under the double window, which allowed me to push aside the flowered curtain a bit, and stare up at the night sky.

I think it’s that view of the immense darkness, into which it was still possible to glimpse an abundance of stars (there was less light pollution then), that triggered the cascades of anxious thoughts that returned to me, often, in the night.

By the time I was 8, I had experienced several deaths in the family; had seen my father break down and cry at the dinner table after his mother died (we were on summer vacation in Cape Cod when we received the news and had to pack our things up and return home); had already been to the funeral parlour more than once and witnessed an open casket. I remember feeling caught up in the distress and sadness of others, and understanding to a surprising degree the finality of my separation from those who had died.

When I stared up into the night sky from my bed, as a child, what I saw was the wondrous and terrifying possibility of eternity. Children whose upbringing includes almost any form of religious education are soon introduced to the notion of an afterlife. Their parents do this because it’s what they’ve learned and probably firmly believe, but also, because it’s immensely compelling and comforting to know in your heart that those you have lost—a parent, a dear friend, even a stranger whose accidental or violent death has shaken you, and worst of all, a child—have “passed on” to a better place and so, still exist, and remain somehow accessible to you through prayer or some form of spiritual, noetic connection.

I accepted this notion of enduring, lasting contact with those we’ve lost because of course it made separation from them less cruel. It made it endurable. It seemed to bring peace to the adults in my life who were suffering. It was part of a child’s imaginary universe of “ever after”, so beautifully laid out in the bedtime stories that are read to us in childhood.

And then, one night, as I lay quietly in bed, the idea that when I died, I, too, would go on to live forever and ever and ever, struck me as something truly disturbing and frightening. It was good to imagine the grandmother I had lost looking down at me from a vague and peaceful place, but it was entirely different to cast myself into a mode of existence that would be vast and infinite. Being with Jesus, or being with my lost relatives forever no longer felt soothing. As a school-age child, wrestling with the notion of eternity, of existence going on and on and on and on and on…in a form that my mind could not grasp—that none of our minds can grasp—it kept me awake, tossing and turning.

My photo: doorstep, Fall 2013

I’m not sure why, but I never brought this up with anyone during all of the years of my growing up. I suppose that I did what many (most?) of us do, which is: experience life, gather empirical evidence, keep asking questions and searching for answers, remain curious and open, seek out sources of illumination, recognize the people who seem to carry within them a luminous quality, and people whose effect on those around them is always positive, as though they were infused with some sort of spiritual grace; and finally, read, read, read, read all kinds of books. Books about death and dying, of the type pioneered by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, certainly, but fiction is also full of profound storytelling on the subject that often reaches us empathetically far more quickly than most other written works, and I never shied away from those.

I can’t help but wonder, though, whether my intuition hadn’t been sending me messages for a long time, because some of the most magnetic, most affecting books I’ve read in recent years have been memoirs of the dying, the grief-stricken and the suicidal: not one of which was anything but inspiring. The first of these was Joan Didion’s acutely observed Year of Magical Thinking, followed by Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, a brave and straightforward book about severe depression, by a favourite, sweetly funny author. There was also Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, one of the most beautiful, most precious books I own. More recently, there was Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir, which I read just months before my own cancer diagnosis, and lastly, Natalie Goldberg’s Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, received as a gift a few weeks ago, a story of survival, which has galvanized me into writing about my experience, because, added to all of these other small, unassuming, important books, it helped me to see how much we need these distilled, unflinching accounts of facing illness and possibly death—our own or a loved one’s—and how there are no rules for the writing of these. Each is as unique as the experiences being recounted.

Death and dying are the only profoundly personal, individual human experience we are ALL certain to share; they are the ultimate oxymoron—the universal one-off.

I haven’t resolved the conundrum of eternity, and I don’t think I’m meant to. I no longer search for absolutes. The physicist and man of letters, Alan Lightman, speaks of a universe, a world in which all composite things, including humans and stars, eventually disintegrate and return to their component parts. Based simply on my observations of the things we build, of the natural world that still surrounds us, and of our own aging and return to the earth, this seems a good place to anchor my thinking about beginnings and endings.

What I also know now, for certain, is how much we simply need each other, to get through the tough days, the suffering and the fears; and I know that it is enough. I have received a life-threatening, ominous diagnosis, and yet I have never felt so loved, so surrounded and so grateful to be alive. A spirit, an energy connects me to others, and to life. I have always felt it, been aware of it moving through me, but never so clearly as now.

Holmes, Ashley B.; The Grieving Tree; The Royal Hospitals; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-grieving-tree-209739