One thing leads to another. I had the sudden and unusual urge to clean my shower door this morning, and ended up spending hours on the bathroom, the bedroom, the laundry area in the garage…. I made myself stop at six o’clock so I could take a walk, which was more of a chore than some evenings, because I had already been on my feet most of the day.
Even so, I didn’t want to take the shortcut, because the sight of the slant rays through the redwood trees at the park is not to be missed. This is where my children played soccer and softball, and climbed those trees, before they were trimmed of their lower branches. I like experiencing the park this way more than the former version, when we used to stand around shivering on the damp sidelines to watch an hour of soccer.
But getting back to earlier in the day: Before indulging in the flurry of vacuuming and scrubbing, I had followed other, quieter prompts, in the realm of poetry. I was reading some recommendations for anthologies, when the collection Come Hither showed up on my mental path. This was probably the first book of poetry I ever bought. We were homeschooling and I had borrowed Walter de la Mare’s anthology from the library. But I couldn’t renew it forever, and it was clearly a book that one would like to delve into forever. So I splurged on a copy of our own, and my students would leaf through its pages week by week to find an appealing poem to memorize.
In the last months I had forgotten about this book; I knew it was in the spare bedroom on a shelf full of poetry books, and I made a note to myself to get it down and enjoy it again. After this evening’s walk I did that, but I had to limit myself to reading only the first poem, so that I will get to bed at a reasonable hour tonight. I also discovered a wonderful article by David M. Whalen, about the anthology and its editor: “Walter de la Mare’s Come Hither.”
He explains the frontispiece address to the “Young of All Ages”: “Anthologies of children’s verse usually fall into sentimentality. They reflect their editors’ attempts at indulgence in feelings that have become unreal to editors and readers both. Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages is markedly free of this blot as de la Mare, a Twentieth-Century British poet and author, never left behind the numinous sense of mystery that characterizes childhood.”
British author Alice Thomas Ellis is quoted in the article as saying that if she could have the Bible and Shakespeare and one other book, when stranded on a desert island, the third book would be Come Hither. The copious notes alone I find fascinating; they are obviously written with the older and even oldest Young in mind, and they lead me always to one more musing .
Here is that first poem of the collection. As the turning of the page will reveal a different offering, and another following that, I feel certain that I will have more to share with you in the future. But as Whalen points out, this one poem already contains everything.
THIS IS THE KEY
This is the Key of the Kingdom
In that Kingdom is a city;
In that city is a town;
In that town there is a street;
In that street there winds a lane;
In that lane there is a yard;
In that yard there is a house;
In that house there waits a room;
In that room an empty bed;
And on that bed a basket–
A Basket of Sweet Flowers Of Flowers, of Flowers; A Basket of Sweet Flowers.
Flowers in a Basket;
Basket on the bed;
Bed in the chamber;
Chamber in the house;
House in the weedy yard;
Yard in the winding lane;
Lane in the broad street;
Street in the high town;
Town in the city;
City in the Kingdom–
This is the Key of the Kingdom. Of the Kingdom this is the Key.
This morning I had to wait around to take my walk, until the dawn lightened enough. When I went outside the first time to check the visibility, the feeling in the air was thrilling. The combination of the light and the humidity and everything was something you don’t get to experience if you are in the house smelling the coffee.
I’m not usually outdoors before 6:00, though there was one summer when for a few weeks at least Pippin and I would go to the high school track so that she could run, while I walked, in the dark — because it was the only time we had.
When I did start out a little later, the sky was filled with beautiful clouds. All the plants along the path were breathing into the space where my face was coming along with its nose. It was very intimate; I wanted to stand a while in the middle of the path and breathe with them.
I’ve been walking the same path almost every day, and getting to know some landmarks, or seeing how they have developed in the last 26 years. I feel that I didn’t notice them before…. or I forgot, is more likely. I am not the same person I was, and some of them are also more grown up, if they are still there.
When my tires were getting rotated the other day I took a walk in that neighborhood and it had its own scents and views. With fennel! I know I am always talking about the wild fennel, but it is everywhere, and giving off that sweet licorice smell as it makes its seeds and dries up. The banks of the creek are full of it — my summer is full of it — and this field is decorated, too.
Today I will go to the funeral and burial for the young man who fell asleep in the Lord last week. His casket was brought into the church this week and while we were commemorating the Beheading of John the Baptist yesterday morning it was in the middle of the nave. After the Liturgy we had more prayers for him, and koliva.
We have sung these prayers as an adjunct to every service that has happened since he died, and this week there has been a service every day. I wasn’t present for every one.
A new icon of the Forerunner of Christ was recently commissioned for the church, showing several scenes from his life. It was finished just in time for this feast.
Yesterday we heard words from St. Justin Popivic’s homily on this feast, about how St. John the Baptist had been the Forerunner of Christ not just on earth, but also into Hades:
The glorious Forerunner also entered into the kingdom of death as the Forerunner of all of the true Confessors of Christ in the world, all of the true Prophets in the world, to announce to all of the souls in the kingdom of death: Lo, death is defeated, the demons destroyed, the kingdom of death will be destroyed when, in a little while, the Lord appears here, and you will be led out of this horror and into heavenly joy, into the Kingdom On High. …. Thus, for us Christians today is like unto Great Friday. Just as for the Savior, the Resurrection follows Great Friday, so the Forerunner joyously dies and enters into death, for he sees the victory over death, and knows that the Lord has prepared for him as well eternal life and resurrection from the dead on the day of the Great Judgment.
When the Lord was crucified, He descended into the nether regions, into Hades, into the kingdom of death, with His human Soul. His Body lay in the tomb, but His Soul, the fullness of his Divinity, descended into death’s kingdom. And how astonished must have been all of the human souls in Hades, on seeing God in a human soul, shining with ineffable light, light impossible for a human being to imagine. Who would not come to believe in Him? Who, when He appears in the kingdom of death so filled with Eternal Truth, Eternal Life, Eternal Justice?
He appears as conqueror over death. And as death’s kingdom could not hold God Who was in Jesus’ soul, as it could not hold God in its hands, it fell apart because of Christ’s Divinity, because of His Most-holy Soul, in which was the fullness of God. And the Lord led out of death’s kingdom all those who had earlier come to believe the Forerunner, and those who had come to believe in Him, the Lord Jesus Christ, to believe that in truth, He was True God in Heaven and on earth.
My father and my father-in-law were unusual, in that after their wives died, they each lived another nine or more years. Many men die soon after their wives, and people speculate about why. It seems that women in general do better when they lose their spouses; I have read theories about why this is… probably a lot of things contribute. Here are my ideas, largely gleaned from other people. Please forgive the over-simplification and generalities – we are all probably exceptions at least sometimes:
1) Women are used to taking care of things and people, so they know how to take care of themselves. They at least get the necessary things done for survival during the period while they are learning to live without their husbands. But if men have been used to the women cooking for them and in various ways making the house a home, they would be at risk for becoming less healthy very fast when their wives are gone, to some degree reverting to the risky behavior characteristic of unmarried men.
2) If women are, in the words of author John Gray, like “waves” whose emotions periodically roll over people around them, perhaps they know instinctively to let that tide of grief flow as long as it must. Men, on the other hand, don’t know how to deal with things they can’t control, and they want to fix problems such as emotions. If we know that we will get through this, and that there is no going around it, we are able to survive.
3) Women often have support networks with other women, and these friends help them to not feel alone. They have someone to talk to, and/or go shopping with, etc. They have a pattern of activity with other people that they can continue in some fashion as widows so they don’t start from nothing when creating their new lives. Men are notorious (at least, among most of my women friends) for not having friends in the same way. They are more likely to become depressed.
About this last point, I know that you readers of my blog have been a important part of that network for me. I have never been in the habit of going out to lunch or taking walks with friends on a regular basis, being part of a knitting group, etc. I don’t even get helped by talking about my grief, but I am without a doubt helped by writing about it, especially if at least one person is reading-listening and affirming. So I thank all of you very much – you are extending my life span!
What sparked my thinking on these things recently was finding a quote by Donald Hall, the poet who was married to poet Jane Kenyon when she died in her 40’s. He wrote:
Poetry gives the griever not release from grief but companionship in grief. Poetry embodies the complexities of feeling at their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears.
Many years ago I enjoyed in The New Yorker an article that Hall wrote about his late wife. It was the first I knew of him, but several times over the years I’ve read more of his prose. He is still alive, though she died 20+ years ago, and he was almost 20 years older than she. Now he writes only prose, but I thought that if I were going to share that quote I ought to read some of the poetry he wrote after she died. So I borrowed the collection Without from the library.
I found most of the fresh-grief poems to be too fresh and overwrought, and I don’t know if that is only because I’m past that stage myself, or because of something to do with him being a man. Perhaps he was too distracted by mourning to be able to do his best work. I never did find one I loved; I like his prose so much better. But this later one serves well:
Letter After a Year
Here’s a story I never told you.
Living in a rented house
on South University in Ann Arbor
long before we met, I found
bundled letters in the attic room
where I took myself to work.
A young woman tenant of the attic
wrote these letters to her lover,
who had died in a plane crash.
In my thirtieth year, with tenure
and a new book coming out,
I read the letters in puzzlement.
“She’s writing to somebody dead?”
There’s one good thing
about April. Every day Gus and I
take a walk in the graveyard.
I’m the one who doesn’t
piss on your stone. All winter
when ice and snow kept me away
I worried that you missed me.
“Perkins! Where the hell
————-In hell. Every day
I play in repertory the same
script without you, without love,
without audience except for Gus,
who waits attentive
for cues: a walk, a biscuit,
bedtime. The year of days
without you and your body swept by
as quick as an afternoon;
but each afternoon took a year.
The poem goes on for many more stanzas – this first part was my favorite, especially the last four lines. (The poet intended for the phrase “In hell” to be indented with only white space in the gap, but I haven’t been able to teach WordPress about this aspect of poetry — hence the filler line.)
Ten years after his wife’s death Hall published The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon. I was surprised that the majority of the book is about their life after her diagnosis of leukemia. It does include the essay The Third Thing, in which he writes about their years as a whole and how the writing life figured into it. The story of how he brought Jane, not yet 30, to New Hampshire from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to his grandmother’s house where from a child he had always wanted to live, is very touching.
She fell in love with the place at Eagle Pond, but their joint realization of the strong desire to move there came in stages. It seemed preposterous for him to quit his reliable teaching job to do it.
“It was late October when Jane made the definitive announcement: She would chain herself to the walls of the rootcellar rather than leave New Hampshire. I was terrified; I was joyous.”
I wonder at my interest in a couple whose poetry I’ve barely read, with whom I might seem to share very little in common, unless you count, as I do heavily, their love for a secluded life at home by a lake, in the garden, reading and writing much of the day. They were part of a warm church community of which Donald’s relatives were also members. Donald loves baseball, and has been a lifelong smoker (Well, no, I don’t share that with him). They lived a life that perhaps the majority of the population would not be able to endure. In fact, some people asked, “What do you do?”
From “The Third Thing”: “What we did: we got up early in the morning. I brought Jane coffee in bed. She walked the dog as I started writing, then climbed the stairs to work at her own desk on her own poems. We had lunch. We lay down together. We rose and worked at secondary things. I read aloud to Jane; we played scoreless ping-pong; we read the mail; we worked again. We ate supper, talked, read books sitting across from each other in the living room, and went to sleep. If we were lucky the phone didn’t ring all day.”
I would probably find it easy to read about other couples also if they knew how to write as well about their everyday satisfactions – and sufferings. But I will have to move on, when I have finished this article, without learning everything that might be known about Donald and Jane, their life and their loves.
Though I might yet read more of their poetry. I have the fat Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon in the house right now, and will share with you this:
In the Grove: The Poet at Ten
She lay on her back in the timothy and gazed past the doddering auburn heads of sumac.
A cloud — huge, calm,
and dignified — covered the sun
but did not, could not, put it out.
The light surged back again.
Nothing could rouse her then
from that joy so violent
it was hard to distinguish from pain.
Donald Hall is 87 now. In a review of Essays After Eighty we read, “Jane Kenyon’s presence is everywhere in Essays After Eighty. The couple were married for 23 years, until her 1995 death from leukemia. Kenyon was 47 years old. Hall endured a period of intense pain, captured in two poetry collections and a memoir. Twenty years later, raw agony has become constant, aching loss: ‘I will mourn her forever.’”
Perhaps his writing is the support that has kept him going, even though he had cancer before Jane ever got sick, and last we heard, he was still smoking a pack a day.
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth
My whole church is bereaved, because one of our strong young men, the only son of his parents, grown up for 35 years in the parish, suddenly sickened and died. It happened so fast, it seems unreal to us. This morning I attended a prayer service in advance of the funeral proper.
One of the lines that is repeated in song is, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord; teach me Thy statutes,” and I mused on what God might be teaching me right now. Certainly, we should all “number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” But I don’t want to forget something else that our rector reminded us of, at the end of the service, that even in our grief we have joy, knowing that Christ has overcome death — that’s why we could pray that our brother will be granted rest “with the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”
Every time there is another death or funeral, my own soul’s griefs are awakened, acknowledged and comforted. And our pastor also kindly included in our church bulletin today an encouraging passage (an excerpt from this article) from Father Alexander Schmemann. He starts out explaining why death must be understood as an evil enemy. But keep reading:
God created man with a body and soul, i.e. at once both spiritual and material, and it is precisely this union of spirit, soul and body that is called man in the Bible and in the Gospel. Man, as created by God, is an animate body and an incarnate spirit, and for that reason any separation of them, and not only the final separation, in death, but even before death, any violation of that union is evil. It is a spiritual catastrophe. From this we receive our belief in the salvation of the world through the incarnate God, i.e. again, above all, our belief in His acceptance of flesh and body, not “body-like,” but a body in the fullest sense of the word: a body that needs food, that tires and that suffers. Thus that which in the Scriptures is called life, that life, which above all consists of the human body animated by the spirit and of the spirit made flesh, comes to an end — at death — in the separation of soul and body. No, man does not disappear in death, for creation may not destroy that which God has called from nothingness into being. But man is plunged into death, into the darkness of lifelessness and debility. He, as the Apostle Paul says, is given over to destruction and ruin.
Here, I would once more like to repeat and emphasize that God did not create the world for this separation, dying, ruin and corruption. And for this reason the Christian Gospel proclaims that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” The Resurrection is the recreation of the world in its original beauty and totality. It is the complete spiritualization of matter and the complete incarnation of the spirit in God’s creation. The world has been given to man as his life, and for this reason, according to our Christian Orthodox teaching, God will not annihilate it but will transfigure it into “a new heaven and a new earth,” into man’s spiritual body, into the temple of God’s presence and God’s glory in creation.
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death…” And that destruction, that extermination of death began when the Son of God Himself in His immortal love for us voluntarily descended into death and its darkness, filling its despair and horror with His light and love. And this is why we sing on Pascha not only “Christ is risen from the dead,” but also “trampling down death by death…”
He alone arose from the dead, but He has destroyed our death, destroying its dominion, its despair, its finality. Christ does not promise us Nirvana or some sort of misty life beyond the grave, but the resurrection of life, a new heaven and a new earth, the joy of the universal resurrection. “The dead shall arise, and those in the tombs will sing for joy…” Christ is risen, and life abides, life lives… That is the meaning; that is the unending joy of this truly central and fundamental confirmation of the Symbol of Faith: “And the third day, He rose again according to the Scriptures.” According to the Scriptures, i.e. in accordance with that knowledge of life, with that design for the world and humanity, for the soul and body, for the spirit and matter, for life and death, which has been revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. This is the entire faith, the entire love, and the entire hope of Christianity. And this is why the Apostle Paul says, “If Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain.”
–Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, 1980,
Translated from Russian by Robert A. Parent