Die before you die.

The day after I wrote about feeling my mortality, I was prompted to think more on the subject, first by Father Stephen Freeman, in an article about hospitals vs. hospice, and the importance of visiting the sick. When he was chaplain on a hospice team:

“It was the first time I ever saw a doctor listening carefully to nurses and chaplains. There was nothing ‘active’ that could be done other than providing comfort and support. The team stood in awe before the reality of dying, inevitably sharing the knowledge that what a patient was facing would be our own lot in time.”

For several years I’ve had more of that awareness myself, that every moment I go on living it is only because of God’s will and sustaining power. This understanding was only heightened when I was weak and sick, and not distracted by all the “active” things of my typical days, and could be in awe of the fact of existence.

This morning, I have a further reminder of death, and the scripture that tells us, “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints.” A woman about my age fell asleep in death this week and I will be helping to prepare her body for burial in just a couple of hours. We will pray and anoint her with oil and commend her to Christ, before she is moved to the church for her funeral. It is always a holy thing to join with a sister at this stage in her “journey to the kingdom.”

In the short movie linked below, the musings of a 97-year-old philosopher as he calmly and “philosophically” considers his own death show a sensibility much more deeply human and nuanced than what he wrote in his book on the subject when he was younger. Though he feels that he lost half of himself when his wife of 70 years died, at the same time he doesn’t want to die; he has just started noticing the beauty of trees the way he never did before. The intellectual history of his own mind tells him that “there is no point” to life, so it doesn’t make sense to him, he calls it foolish, that he should mind saying good-bye. But he does mind.

Maybe it was the death of his wife that shook up his life so that now he calls death “the one thing central to my existence.” And he doesn’t have it figured out. Though now he likely knows more than he did then, because he has actually crossed that river; the movie was made by his grandson in his memory. There is a short article with a little more information at The Atlantic.

Father Stephen: “The monastic tradition of the Church has the notion that we should always keep death before our eyes. In a culture where sickness and death are hidden from view, such a notion can seem morbid and wrongly formulated. St. Paul said of himself, ‘I die daily’ (1Cor. 15:31).

“More completely, he said, ‘I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20).

“These are not morbid notions, but remembrances of the truth. If you lived on the edge of a cliff, only disaster could come from forgetting that fact. We remember the truth of our existence (including its end) so that our life might be shaped by the conscious remembrance of the name of God. When we pray, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,’ we proclaim the futility and emptiness of our self-existence, while more profoundly proclaiming the goodness and kindness of God in Christ who, in us, tramples down death by death.

“There is a monastic saying in Orthodoxy: ‘If you die before your die, then you won’t have to die when you die.'”

I grow younger again in January.

In spite of being only 95% recovered from my illness (a wild guess at a statistic), I started something new today. Pippin and the Professor gave me a Christmas present of a year’s membership in the local regional parks agency. It includes other benefits besides free parking, but my unwillingness to waste that part made me want to use it soon and often. I’d thought that I’d need to drum up a walking companion in order to get myself moving in that direction, but today when the afternoon suddenly opened up, I decided to go on my own to the most familiar of the parks. I’ve written about this one before, most memorably just after my husband’s death almost five years ago.

It’s winter, and I knew there would be a lot of grayness on this mostly gray day; I was (surprisingly) surprised at how much there was to see that wasn’t drab. Some of the regional parks I will visit have no parking fee at all, but this one is $7! So it was a good one to start with, to make me feel the monetary value of my gift — which is surely the least part.

It’s not a huge park, but it is crisscrossed with several trails and I never have a map. In the past it seems we often end up back at the parking lot before we are feeling done, so I was trying to make the widest loop I could around the perimeter of the space. I think I did okay. Where a huge bay tree hangs over the creek, I took this picture in which I already can’t tell where the lines lie between the sky and the tree and the reflections.

In the last several months “everything,” most lately the attack of who knows what viruses, has conspired to make me feel my mortality. Not that I thought I was near death, but in just one year’s time I seemed to have become several years older, weaker and flabbier. I know youth is relative to a point, but I thought my youth might have died. It felt very good to be walking briskly in the fresh air and to be right there under the sky when the sun came out from time to time. It was shining nearly horizontally in my face or my camera lens when it did. Frogs croaked, and towhees hopped about in the bushes.

Have I mentioned that I also put my back “out” just before my battle with the viruses? I couldn’t even do anything about that for weeks, but last Friday I did see a chiropractor and am now on my way to getting back my less flabby self. The weather is of the sort that makes me want to curl up indoors with a book and a blanket, but I have had my warning, and I am going to fight against my tendency to the sedentary lifestyle.

Not far from the descent to the parking lot, I was on a ridge from which I could see across the road below to the vineyards on the slopes beyond. And on my drive home — only ten minutes! — I noticed workers pruning the vines.

January is usually somewhat depressing for me, but this year I have been distracted from the bleak weather by other things that one might think more depressing. It didn’t work that way; I was continually reminded of God’s presence and had so many occasions of joy and contentment, it was obvious that they were pure gift. And this Christmas present from my children — it is a gentle prod to do the things they know I will love. I wonder if I can squeeze in one more park before the end of January?

The endless troubles of everyday life.

To read the biography of a brilliant writer without having read any of her writings — that seems unwise, perhaps especially in the case of Rebecca West, who appears to have put her best self into her writings. As I told one of my readers, I’m afraid if you read her biography first, you might be put off from reading her.

It may be that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was the first of her books that I heard about, and I did intend to read it back then. It is generally considered to be her magnum opus. My friend Cathy has read it, and so far she is the only real-life friend with whom I have been able to enjoy the kind of experience that West’s biographer describes below. Our most recent venue was the agape meal at church yesterday. 🙂

For a time I owned a large volume of West’s letters, but they were either depressing or boring for me; I wasn’t familiar enough with the personages of her era, and in letters she was often critical or complaining. The Birds Fall Down I found on my father’s bookshelf; I know it happened to be there because my grandfather had been a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which featured it. It was fascinating and gripping, and I knew I must read it again to truly grasp it, but first I would need an in-depth history lesson on the Bolshevik Revolution. None of that has happened yet.

I only know that West experienced some satisfaction and happiness in life because of what I read in the Aubrey Trilogy. It is a story of endless troubles, theirs and their friends’, from sibling bickering to murder, but I don’t mind sharing the drama with the Aubreys, because they manage to create such beauty and familial warmth out of their meager circumstances. Even the most traumatic or heartbreaking events become opportunities for increased love and understanding, and for growing up — but without sentimentality. West wrote the story in her 60’s, when she had surely grown up, too, and grown away from the stridency of her youth.

Besides the stories of home and family relationships, there are all the other aspects of the place and culture in which they live, plus commentary on art, politics and music — pretty much any topic might and does come up in the lively Aubrey household. I plan to share a few quotes here in the days to come.

I noticed just now that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is on Kindle. Maybe I will read it after all; or Survivors in Mexico, another book that’s been waiting on my shelf…. But here is Gibb:

Lorna Gibb

“For me, as for so many of my peers, West is a shared pleasure, passed on, read, then later discussed in dingy student Soho coffee shops in the eighties, or more recently, over wine at a picnic in a garden. Perhaps the most wonderful thing of all is that, because of the eclectic nature of West’s writing, these exchanges could be on so many topics: literature, espionage, travel, the role of women, all originating from a book or article by a single author.

“West dealt with big topics, many of which still reverberate today, such as the integration of Eastern and Western religious faiths, the contradictions of femininity and power, the causes and effects of wars. Yet, in her considerations, she did not lose sight of the domestic concerns, those personal and intimate stories taking place against the backdrop of social change and unrest. As she once stated in an article for The New Yorker, she did not wish to write history as Gibbon liked to record it, but a history of the endless troubles of everyday life.”

-Lorna Gibb, in the introduction to The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West

The opposite of not getting in trouble.

My Christmas tree is still standing in my entryway, at the bottom of the stairwell. It’s handy to have an artificial tree so that it never starts looking worn out and dried up. I didn’t get it out of its box and trimmed until very late, and then all the days this month that I was mostly in bed because of my viruses, I couldn’t even see it much. I missed many services of Nativity and Theophany in which I might have been reminded by poetry and theology of the significance of “Immanuel: God with us.”

So bear with me if I continue on the theme of the Incarnation. After all it is, as was pointed out to me not long ago, the second most important point of Christian doctrine, after the Holy Trinity. If we truly live, we live it every day. And it’s worth giving extra attention to at least once a year. 🙂

One of the days I was in bed I started listening to The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West. I would love to hear if any of  my readers has read this book or others in the Aubrey Trilogy of which it is first. This makes the third time I will have read this novel in the last ten years, and I could count on one hand the novels I’ve read three times in my whole life. I read the other two in the series as well, This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund, and a totally different novel of hers, The Birds Fall Down.

They have all made me ask what sort of woman could create these fascinating characters and dramas, portrayed by means of the most revealing dialogue and natural prose. After I started sitting up in the recliner I began to read The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West by Lorna Gibb. It appears that there is a lot of autobiographical material in The Fountain Overflows, set in England in the Edwardian period. I don’t know if I will ever be able to write a good review of this book or any of West’s; they seem too vast and rich — and mysterious — for me to grasp, and that makes me wonder, Why am I so taken with her as a writer? and How does she accomplish this enchantment? I have some ideas — maybe they will lead to something!

The only reason I have for saying anything just now is, I ran across this passage about a Christmas Day the Aubrey Family celebrated. It contains one of the thought-provoking pearls of wisdom and understanding that are found liberally scattered throughout, not ever as little sermons, but as insights that come to the narrator Rose, or a phrase spoken by the mother as she’s trying to answer one of her children’s questions.

The father of the family wastes and loses money in various ways, so that they are always on the brink of disaster. In the passage below, the young Rose calls him “unlucky,” but the reader knows that it’s a case of children wanting to think the best of their father. His indiscretions or outright shameful behavior are the reason he and his family are always needing rescuing.

On Christmas Day the mother stays home with the maid to prepare Christmas dinner, and the father walks to church with the four children. The girls, having been musically trained to listen carefully and critically to every piece of music they hear, are often unable to enjoy anything slightly imperfect. The italics are mine:

“In church we were so contented that we did not think of the choir as music and did not approve or disapprove, but gratefully took it that it was giving tongue to what was in our hearts. ‘How bright,’ Mary whispered in my ear, ‘the silver dishes on the altar are.’ We liked the holly round the pulpit, the white chrysanthemums on the altar. Of late Mary and I had doubts about religion, we wished God had worked miracles that would have enabled Mamma to keep Aunt Clara’s furniture and saved Papa from his disappointment over the deal in Manchester, but now faith was restored to us. We saw that it was good of God to send His Son to earth because man had sinned, it was the opposite of keeping out of trouble, which was mean, it was the opposite of what Papa’s relatives were doing in not wanting to see him just because he had been unlucky. We liked the way Richard Quinn stood on the seat of the pew and, though he had been told he must be good and sit as still as a mouse in this holy place, nuzzled against Papa’s shoulder and sometimes put up his face for a kiss, certain that showing love for Papa must be part of being good.”

The picture of the family in church is sweet, but it’s the way the love of God and His willingness to come to our aid are put in a child’s very personal terms that strikes me. They paraphrase a word I really appreciate in regard to His taking on human flesh and frailty, human sin and soul-sickness and chains of death: solidarity. Glory to God in the highest!