Death and Life, Earth and Heaven

My dear friend Rod has just lost his father in the way that all of us want to lose our fathers someday – after a long and fruitful life, amid the company of family and friends keeping watch over his bed, in a peaceful home, blanketed by prayers. His words are so full of holiness and wonder that you owe it to yourself to read them. But they got me thinking, as they often do.

We kept a vigil of our own just days ago, as my sister brought the next generation of our family into the world, and in reading about my friend's adieu journey, I’ve been struck by many similarities between the beginning and the end of earthly existence. Waiting for a loved one to be born is just as joyful, just as frightening, just as sacred as waiting for his death. Endless uncertainty, at the mercy of medical professionals who (for all their education and experience) have to admit in the end that they, too, are baffled by the amazing and absurd things our bodies can do. And then can't anymore.

Watching, wondering, trying to reconcile the flood of emotions with daily existence. This person is in such terrible pain, but I need a cup of coffee just to stay awake with him. Time becomes malleable, now compressed into a tumultuous blur of moments and now elongated so that every second is agony. You can’t truly empathize with the experience of your loved one in the hospital bed, and you wonder, guiltily: what is it really like for her? What would it be like for me? To give birth? To die?

I’ve always felt a connection with the protagonist of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and not just because we share a name. From the other side, she looks back at the world, and is filled with true nostalgia – the pain of nostos, of returning home. It is excruciating:

Mr. Webb: Where's my girl? Where's my birthday girl?
Emily: I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. She breaks down sobbing. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners ... Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking ... and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. She asks abruptly, through her tears: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. Pause. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.
Emily: I'm ready to go back.

A sprinkling of salt on a chocolate pie, a spoonful of honey in a spicy vinaigrette: both are better with a swirled-in bit of their opposite to intensify and prolong their beauty. The line between joy and sorrow is such a fine one that neither can be experienced without a touch of the other. You greet the squalling child with a shout of exultation, but hovering behind your beaming eyes is the realization that she will know loneliness and want. She will live a life full of pain, but also full of Emily Gibbs’ ticking clocks and hot coffee and the lovely, terrible moonlight. And someday she will be right back on the edge, and her descendants will gather around her and weep, but in the distance they will feel a thrill of delight for her, on the verge of entering back into the eternal bliss to which we are all called by that still, small voice.

From death to life, from earth to heaven, this existence is a blessed mystery.

Overheard

Student: I love poems! They're so much easier because they don't have to make sense!

Me: Hey, cuff your socks so the logo doesn't show, please.
Student: Why?
Me: It's the dress code. Also, I've heard it's a sign of gang activity.
Student: I plead the first!

Me: What are you doing?
Student: I need to jump to my death from that chair.
Me: . . . ?
Student: I'm playing Aegeus.

Six Ways to Sunday

Every day these little vignettes pass me by, when Sunday's peace seems a distant memory and I'm just trying to make it through another week. But now that I have a five-day weekend to reflect (thank you, late winter storm!) I find them coming back to me, making me smile all over again.

  1. We've just finished learning venir, to come, and bid goodbye to the early-dismissal track star; as she leaves, I explain to the class that revenir, to come back, is conjugated the same way. "So if you want to ask someone to come ba--," and inspiration cuts me off. I stride to the doorway and shout, "REVIENS!" She halts, bewildered, and the class dissolves in laughter. Meanwhile, the students in the hall get a sneak preview of my new advertising campaign for the French program.
  2. My favorite lesson of the whole year happens to be the day of my annual observation. I guide the class in the rhythmic tapping of iambic pentameter, the beating of the heart through the poet's words. Da-DUM. Da-DUM. Da-DUM. Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince! Oh no, it is an ever-fixed mark. Titania waked and straightway loved an ass. Hyperbole, metaphor, double entendre. Richly-laden lines twist over and around them until their own are pouring forth: Australia is a lovely place to be.  My doggie loves to play and roll in snow. Morning coffee suddenly sounds poetic, and sunburned afternoons call to them from future summers. When the bell rings, my department chair apologizes for staying through the whole period: "I just didn't want to leave."
  3. Midway through a quiz, a student decides to reword a sentence and spends a good three minutes crossing it out. Her laborious scraping of pen on paper is finally interrupted with the clean smack of a whiteout pen on her desk, delivered with silent reproach by her neighbor who doesn't even look up from her own work. I can't help but laugh: that girl will make a great mom someday.
  4. During a "free" period as I'm hustling through the next batch of papers, I comment on one: "When I die, I want you to write my obituary." I am completely serious. If she can make a paper about Salinger sound as fresh and hopeful as he wasn't, I imagine she could do a lot for my posthumous public image. 
  5. Two separate parents, within a week of each other, thanked me for being hard on their children. "This is part of growing up," one said. "She needs to take responsibility for her actions," said another. My faith in modern parenting ceased its precipitous freefall and actually took a few halting, hopeful steps back toward the light.
  6. In the stairwell, as students jostle each other to get to break and I attempt to keep out of the way, I spot one who is particularly pained by the tangle of backpacks and ponytails. "This is SO not ideal," she huffs. I suppress a smile, but as I consider her words over the next few days, I realize it's a perfect thesis statement for my life. Maybe for yours, too.

Greatest Hits of Exam Week

In no particular order:

  • Odysseus had his men tie him to the mast so he could hear the beautiful song of the Syrians.
  • Jason's family may have tried to kill their own children, but Antigone's family was just weird.
  • The Cyclops said he would eat Odysseus last, after all the others. That was the polite thing to do in those days (not eat people but show them hospitality.)
  • All that suffering took a big token out of Thomas More.
  • Theseus saved all the Athenians from the Minotaur. Kind of like the Hunger Games.

Six Ways of Looking at "Hiatus"

Extra-credit question on a recent cumulative vocabulary test: use "hiatus" in a sentence. Here are my favorites (you have to give them credit for trying, right?)

  1. They built a strong hiatus around the criminal to protect him.
  2. The new student had a certain hiatus about her.
  3. The murderer's hiatus crime stunned all of the citizens because it was so brutal.
  4. She said that, but I know she hiatus me.
  5. The student gave a hiatus excuse for why she was late for class.
  6. Her awful hiatus was affecting the whole town!

Wrong answers are always so much more fun than right ones.

Fin

It's been such a tumultuous year for this poor blog that I won't bother apologizing for mere weeks of silence.  At the end of the quarter it seems like all I do is grade. But sometimes grading is fun.

Take, for instance, this assortment of annotations from the last page of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

  • Dorian = dead. (I found this exact note in multiple books.)
  • Suicide?! 
  • He kills the painting and becomes who he was meant to be. 
  • oh snap. 
  • Picture perfect!  (This is actually a relatively advanced pun -- summary here.)
  • WOW
  • What? How? 
  • Totally Gothic. 
  • The End. 

The theory is that if I can get them to speak to literature, literature might just answer back. Regardless, as they fight their way through with such charming incredulity and sarcasm, I do enjoy being a fly on the wall.

April, the Tender Month

By the end of Great Compline this evening, I was completely exhausted from getting angry with myself for continually failing to pay attention. As I closed up the books and put them away, wondering whether any of that hour of prayer had actually entered my heart, I threw a smile and what I thought was a goodbye nod to Margaret, but she held my gaze steadily for a full ten seconds before asking softly, "How is school going?"

She knows me well already, this new friend. And she knows teaching. I can't end this conversation with a simple "Great!" So I exhale slowly, pause, and say, "It's that mid-April slump."

She nods. She has been there.

"There's nothing really wrong," I say, thinking of all the crises that could be happening, but aren't. And then I think of all the learning that also could be happening, but isn't. My last period class today: three on a field trip, five watching every tick on the clock for  early sports dismissals. It was almost funny how, for the last twenty minutes, I actually tried to get the remaining six students to analyze the effect Mark Twain's personal correspondence had on the experience of reading his novel. Almost. But not quite.

"Well," says Margaret. "I'm going to pray that you find a way to get through to them, to wake them up enough to learn. April is -- "

" -- the cruelest month," I finish wryly.

" -- a tender month," she corrects me, her mouth smiling at the reference but her eyes full of sincerity and hope. "You will find just one little thing -- one tiny, inconsequential thing -- to do differently. Something that comes to you while you sleep, something simple, easy, but that makes them see everything in a different way, that opens them up to the experience of learning. I will pray for that, for you."

My eyes well with tears at this unexpected kindness. "Thank you."

She smiles. "Glory to God."

Nuggets of Literary History

Here are some facts you might not have known about E. M. Forster:

  • His works were very climaxational.
  • He didn't finish many of his stories because he was gay.
  • He continued writing until he died.

And about Nathaniel Hawthorne:

  • He spent most of his years as a recluse, but later came out of his home and fell in love with his future wife Sophia.
  • In his story "The Artist of the Beautiful," Owen loves Annie, but sadly Annie ends up marring someone else.