This is a time of year to look back, perhaps considering those who have passed, as the Times Magazine does in its final issue of the year in which they review of the lives of 24 people. They also offer a collage of music from many musicians who have passed this year, starting with Odetta and ending with Danny Federici of the E-Street band.
Death has been more personal this year: 3 people I knew well died before their times. I wrote about all 3, Dana Swan, long-time athletic director at Haverford; Robert Michael Barber, who directed the choir at our wedding; and a student, Greg, whose passing inspired two diaries, Deep Sadness and also this on his memorial and funeral
Today I find myself again meditating on death.
I am not obsessed with death, but at age 62 I expect it will be an ever-increasing part of my life. Those who mentored me in school and college and the generation of relatives before me are rapidly passing from the scene. I remember my my mother's father when he was not much older than am I now telling me that the first part of the paper to which he turned was the obituaries, to see whom he had known who was longer with us. I am of an age where my contemporaries are also beginning to pass. And my medical experience of the past week has served to forcefully remind me that I am not immortal, and I have choices to make if I wish to extend my life to a more reasonable length.
I also think of death because it is an inevitable part of living. At some point I will pass. Despite a long series of religious explorations, I find that I do not think so much about what might occur then, at least, not directly to me: I remain agnostic on the question of any kind of afterlife. My responsibility and concern is for the life I lead, over which I retain something more than nominal control.
When I was younger I used to worry differently - that I would die alone in a room someplace, and no one would even notice my passing until my body began to stink. Now? I am almost 11 years older than Leaves on the Current. I have a circle of family and acquaintances, so that is not so much on my mind. Rather, it is how I might be remembered, for it is in the memories of others that we have the opportunity to live on.
Thus reading an op ed in today's Boston Globe about Madoff spoke directly to what was on my mind, and in large part was the final nudge I needed to write this diary. Let me quote the relevant passage, somewhat extensive, from The perfect response to the Madoff debacle by Rabbi Wesley R. Gardenswartz:
The Talmud teaches that when we die and account for our lives before our Creator, each of us will be asked four core questions that determine whether we have lived a worthy life.
Were you honest in business? The first question we are asked in heaven is not a ritual question, but an ethical one: How were you in the marketplace? In this age of financial scandal, an ancient voice rings true: Business integrity is of paramount importance.
Did you make time to study sacred texts regularly? Our own instincts for authenticity, integrity, and compassion need to be recharged and renewed by studying, regularly, the words of the greatest ethical minds.
Did you do your part to nurture the next generation? Raising children affords us the grace of loving somebody more than we love ourselves.
Did you do your part to make the world a better place? Home and hearth, our own health and happiness, are crucial. But they are not enough for a worthy life. The broken world beckons. At the end of our days, what can we say we did to fix it?
Even if we can answer each question "yes," the Talmud teaches that there is still one last element to a worthy life: yirat hashem, a sense of God's presence. What does this mean in 2008? That we wake up in the morning and realize: it is not about us. We are not the center of the universe. We are not even the center of our own universe. There is God. However much we wrestle with God, however much we argue with God, however much we doubt God, it is God to whom we turn in the depths, and it is God whose service gives our life meaning.
Perhaps Jewishness makes us too fond of questions. After all, retelling of the Passover tale cannot occur until the youngest child asks the four questions. And there is the old joke about the young woman who asked an older Jewish man "Why is it that Jews always answer a question with another question?" and he responded "So, what's wrong with answering a question with a question?" That is a natural part of my being - those of us as Quakers are used to the idea of Queries -
are a device used within the Society of Friends for prompting both corporate and individual self-examination
(from the website of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, where you can explore the idea further if you like).
Perhaps not all of what I quoted from the Rabbi will seem relevant to you. So ignore if so inclined the final paragraph about "yirat hasem", a sense of God's presence - although I remind you that for me it is not something other, but rather "that of God" in the sense in which George Fox of the Society of Friends used it, the idea that it is in every human we encounter.
No, merely consider the four questions themselves:
1. Were you honest in business? In whatever you define as your "work" were you ethical, and not merely to be within the lines, but as a way of operating?
2. Did you make time to study sacred texts regularly? Please note that this is capable of being interpreted broadly. For you perhaps it is the wisdom tradition of a non-Western religion. Perhaps it is something others view as profane and/or secular, like a set of poems, an essay, a novel, or even the wordless sounds of something like a late Beethoven Quartet. "Study" means to absorb, make part of oneself, ponder, inculcate, have it embodied in how your live.
3. Did you do your part to nurture the next generation? Speaking literally I fail this test, as Leaves and I have no biological children, and the traditional rabbinic interpretation of "Be fruitful and multiply" is to have grandchildren of the opposite sex of two different children - under Jewish law first cousins can marry, and this ensures the continuity of the Jewish people. But I am a teacher, thus constantly concerned with the nurture of the next generation. And even were I otherwise employed, I can address this question by not living in a wasteful manner: herein we can apply our concerns for the environment, for lessening racism, sexism, homophobia, hatred, war, poverty - so many opportunities.
4. Did you do your part to make the world a better place? You may think I have already addressed this. But this is more. We can view #3 as about the attitudes we nurture in others, and #4 as the humility requiring us to be honest about the effects of our efforts in each of #1, #2 and #3. If the result of our efforts is not that the world is a better place, then perhaps we need to reexamine our words and actions and beliefs - have we misunderstood something?
Death used to scare me. When I was younger than my mid-20s, I fully expected that I would die before I was 30, in part because I could not imagine myself that old, in part because I saw no purpose for my existence. I have now lived twice as long as I previously anticipated. I still cannot claim that I know my purpose, just as I am agnostic on matters like afterlife and even of God in the sense that most mean that term. Yet I no longer fear death, even as I hope it is not on the immediate horizon. I am only learning now how to love, which for me is the real meaning of life. I am still not very good at it.
Love - let me see if I can talk around this, because I am surely too inexperienced to be able to give a clear explanation. This week I had a heart catheterization as a part of the exploration of the diminishing of my overall health over the past few years. In sense, it was as if something were inserted into my arteries to help make my heart larger. Love for me is the expansion of my heart, to be more inclusive, to be able to accept the failings as well as the success - of myself as well as of others.
I began my diary memorializing Greg, my student, by quoting from the Quaker hymn sung as his body was removed from the Catholic Church wherein the funeral was held. Let me quote it again:
My life flows in endless song, above the earth's lamentation.
I hear the real though far-off hum that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing;
It sounds and echoes in my soul; how can I keep from singing?
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing.
All things are mine since I am his; how can I keep from singing?
My mother was not yet 48 when she died less than a week after I graduated from high school. I found the only way I could address that death was to retreat to my bedroom, to play my cello. My mother had taken up cello herself in her late 30s to help with bursitis in her shoulder. She had fought to have a string program in our schools, because my sister played violin, and then I, without her knowledge, began to take cello lessons from the string teacher at our elementary school. Music has always been a part of my joy, and a way through which I addressed my own sadness.
I do not have a Christian sense of joy - that I will have "the peace of Christ," that is not the part of the hymn that most spoke to me. Rather it was this:
Since love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?
There are 24 people who have passed commemorated in the NY Times Magazine:
Philip Agee | b. 1935: Unspooked
George Carlin | b. 1937: Hard Laughs
Will Elder | b. 1921: His Mad World
Bobby Fischer | b. 1943: The Wonder Match
Steve Fossett | b. 1944: The Aviator
Edwina Froehlich | b. 1915: Founding Mothers
Charlton B. Heston | b. 1923: After Ben-Hur
Albert Hofmann | b. 1906: Day Tripper
Kathleen Kinkade | b. 1930: Commune Creator
Harry Kozol | b. 1906: Inside Her Head
John List | b. 1925: Wanted
Mildred Loving | b. 1940: The Color of Love
Harriet McBryde Johnson | b. 1957: Happy Nevertheless
Jim McKay | b. 1921: The Unexpected Anchor
Ron Rivera | b. 1948: Solution in a Pot
Tim Russert | b. 1950: Role Model
Irena Sendler | b. 1910: The Smuggler
Lew Spence | b. 1920: A Tune for His Times
Stephanie Tubbs Jones | b. 1949: A Clinton Loyalist
Levi Stubbs | b. 1936; Dee Dee Warwick | b. 1945: Soul Bearers
Two speak to me particularly of love. Mildred Loving was a black woman who married a white man and in 1967 their case lead to the Supreme Court declaring anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Perhaps in light of certain recent controversies here, a brief quote from the piece about her will show how the heart is enlarged by love:
Civil rights historians had pretty much accepted that they wouldn’t hear again from Mildred Loving. But last year, the 40th anniversary of the ruling, three colleagues working on behalf of Faith in America, a gay rights group, visited Loving at the small ranch house that Richard built after they moved back to Virginia. The organization was hoping to persuade her to make a statement in favor of gay marriage at a celebration of her own court ruling that the group planned to hold in Washington. "I just don’t know," Loving told them. She hadn’t given it much thought. She listened sympathetically, a worn Bible on her end table, as the group’s founder, the furniture entrepreneur Mitchell Gold, told her of his own struggles as a teenager to accept that society would never let him marry someone he loved. She was undecided when the group left a few hours later, but told Ashley Etienne, a young woman who consulted for the group, that they could continue to chat about the subject over the phone.
Etienne, who said Loving reminded her of her own grandmother, started calling every few days. She asked Loving about how she and her husband endured their setbacks; Loving told her that she didn’t understand why two people who loved each other could not be married and express their love publicly. She talked, as she always did, about how much she loved Richard and what a kind, gentle man he was. On her own, she talked to her neighbors about the request; she talked to her children about it. And in the end, Loving told Etienne, yes, she would allow the group to read a statement in her name supporting gay marriage at the commemoration. "Are you sure you understand what you’re saying?" Etienne asked. "You understand that you’re putting your name behind the idea that two men or two women should have the right to marry each other?"
"I understand it," Loving said, "and I believe it."
The other is of Irena Stendler, a Polish Catholic woman who smuggled Jewish babies and children from the Warsaw Ghetto to safety in the hopes that perhaps they could later be reunited with their families. Even after she had been arrested by the Gestapo and escaped, she returned to this dangerous pursuit. Most knew nothing of her until some two decades after the war that she began to receive recognition for what she did.
Then, in 2000 a group of Kansas high-school girls wrote a play about Sendler called "Life in a Jar," which they eventually performed all over United States and in Poland, where the girls visited Sendler.
The media leapt on the story of the friendship between rural American students and an elderly, unsung Polish heroine. Several newspapers portrayed Sendler as a kind of superhero, single-handedly saving some 2,500 children. It was untrue, Sendler insisted. Smuggling and then protecting children required a long chain of bravery that included couriers, nuns, priests, Polish families. But it was the first act of bravery that made the most heart-wrenching impression on Sendler. A moment of courage when Jewish mothers and fathers kissed their babies one last time in order to give them a chance to live.
When I ponder death, I can consider the various questions from the Talmud. Or perhaps I can reduce them, and all other queries, to one simple inquiry: how large is my heart? How much more can I expand it? How much more can I include?
We often listen to the Messiah at Christmas, the first two of three parts, the third part usually being reserved for the Paschal season, with its resurrectional language. Although in Christian theology, one probably should not separate the two holidays, because the ultimate meaning of the Christian message is found not in incarnation by itself, but ultimately, through resurrection and ascension, in something more complete. Regardless, in the third part the text includes the words of First Corinthians 15:55,
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
Knowing that we can participate in love as fully as we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable - emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, as well as physically - to me means I no longer fear death.
I acknowledge the loss death represents. There were three I knew well. There were many whose work and lives I admired. All are still a part of me - in my memory, and most of all in my heart.
My favorite Shakespearean sonnet is about love. It has often comforted me when I was depressed, and feeling lonely, because I could always remember being loved by someone - even if at times that was limited to four-footed persons. Sonnet XXIX begins like this:
When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
but it is the ending which stays always with me:
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
If the love of someone TOWARDS me can so lift me up, then however meager and limited my own heart may seem to me, then I know I can offer that to others.
To ponder death is to ponder life. And here I cannot end with my own words, but will instead end with one of my sacred texts, from Thomas Stearns Eliot, from Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
And the fire and the rose are one.