Monday, December 28, 2015

"Elements unaltered— / Universe the same"

Back in 2008, I wrote a post about seeing more and more of my mother in myself as I age. It was a happy, loving post, and I was especially pleased with the way it conveyed the complicated bond I feel with my mother. I went back to that old post today, after not revisiting it in quite a while, and I was struck by something in the final paragraph — something I didn't remember was there:

It’s strange to be reminded that characteristics we think of as profoundly our own—even ones as seemingly individual as a facial expression—are built into our DNA; stranger still to think that they can be wired to hide themselves for decades, emerging when the organism hits just the right level of decay. Not that I’m complaining. As genetic time bombs go, a quirky walk beats the hell out of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

That reference to Alzheimer's startled me because my mother is now entering the moderate stage of that disease, or perhaps I should say that she appears to be. There's been no official diagnosis, since she shuns doctors, but her progressive memory loss and other cognitive problems present a textbook picture of someone suffering from Alzheimer's, and her list of risk factors is long.

As sad as it is to think about my mother's fate, there's a lot to be grateful for. Her partner is looking after her, and she still reliably knows all her close family. She's physically well, and best of all, she remains essentially the same happy, sweet person I described in that original post. I brought her some gifts and took her out to lunch on Christmas Eve, and even though I'm not sure she grasped the significance of the holiday, she clearly loved every minute of my visit. Things are likely to change down the road, but right now she takes her characteristic pleasure in living, and every day she hangs onto that will be a gift.

Given the way I blathered on back in 2008 about my potent genetic inheritance, you'd think I'd be pretty freaked out these days over my own prospects. The sentence "I could do a lot worse than to end up like my mother" suggests a whole new set of possibilities now, and some of them are truly terrible.  Strangely enough, though, I can't seem to get scared. I'm 54 and life feels too short — death feels too close — to waste time and energy kicking against an unknowable future. It seems foolish even to invest much mental energy preparing for my mother's future, since she, like any of us, might die tomorrow. Still, I do have moments of dreading the day she no longer lights up like a delighted child at the sight of people she loves. I came across these lines from Emily Dickinson last night and couldn't help imagining the sad moment when they might apply to my mother and me:

Now I knew I lost her —
Not that she was gone —
But Remoteness travelled
On her Face and Tongue.

Alien, though adjoining
As a Foreign Race —
Traversed she though pausing
Latitudeless Place.

Elements Unaltered —
Universe the same
But Love's transmigration —
Somehow this had come

The complete poem is here.

Photo by BitterGrace

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"...all the eyes of hope shall stare"

Blind go the days, but joy will see
Agreements of music; they will wind
The shaking of your dance; no more
Will the ambiguous arm-waves spell
Confusion of the blessing given.

Only and finally declare
Among the purest shapes of grace
The waking of the face of fire,
The body of waking and the skill
To make your body such a shape
That all the eyes of hope shall stare.

~ Muriel Rukeyser, from "Song"

The complete poem is here.

Circe, Robert Auer, 1942

Monday, December 21, 2015

A little something for the Solstice

Last week I went book shopping with friends and came upon a copy of W.H. Auden's A Certain World, which is a "commonplace book" — that is, a personal collection of quotations, notes, observations, etc. Auden describes A Certain World as a kind of autobiography, though I can't say I gleaned any sense of him from it that can't be found in his poems. It is a lovely assemblage of stuff, though, and I was especially moved by an excerpt from a Loren Eiseley essay, "The Judgment of the Birds." The essay has been widely circulated, but I'd never encountered it before, and in any case it strikes me as a piece well worth revisiting, especially at this darkest moment of the year.

Here is a portion of the bit Auden quotes, which describes the reaction of songbirds to a raven preying on one of their nestlings:

No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death.

And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.

The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.

That little passage is beautiful and stirring, but the complete essay is something deeper. It touches the mysteries of consciousness as gracefully as anything I've ever read. You can download it at the link below:

The Judgment of the Birds by Loren Eiseley

"The Judgment of the Birds" is included in Eiseley's book The Immense Journey.

Photo by BitterGrace