Sunday, December 18, 2011

For I am involved . . .

 "Full fathom five thy father lies . . ."

 EMC Cemetery on Highway 312
A host of good friends came over a few days ago to celebrate—or mourn—my passage of the three-score-and-ten millstone . . . er, milestone. It was a great party with enough gag gifts and cards and just as many of the warm, well-wishing kind to melt anyone’s heart, even that of a 70-year old curmudgeon (which, I suspect, doesn’t truthfully describe me). A friend reminded me that it wasn’t a significant date at all; that I’d actually begun my 70th year a year ago. The jury is still out on whether or not that’s a distinction without a difference. A card I received said “Age is just a number . . .” and inside “. . . and yours happens to be a pretty big one!
               My Blackberry Playbook told me the very next morning that Christopher Hitchens, renowned journalist, polemicist and irritating anti-religionist, had died of esophageal cancer at age 62. (It might be fair to say that he smoked himself to death—his consumption of cigarettes was said to peak at 130 per day.) You may know Hitchens from his best-selling diatribe against all religion: God is not Great, published in 2007.
               One day later, an acquaintance and sister of a near neighbour died peacefully at 104. Her very last thought—her sister told me—was about the imminent reunion with her mother.
               It’s been a week of passages and numbers and conversations about passages and numbers.
               I’m currently reading the diary of Jacob Klaassen, early minister in the Eigenheim Mennonite Church, and I’m learning from him what thoughts were raised by passages experienced in the 1920s. In my last reading, his good friend and brother-in-law, David Toews, survives a house fire in which his four year-old daughter dies; a teenage boy dies on the operating table in Rosthern from an overdose of chloroform and a man in Neuanlage is killed in a threshing accident. Jacob Klaassen mourns these deaths with understated poignancy, and usually adds something like a quotation from Psalm 39:4: “Show me, LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.”
               There are echoes in Klaassen’s diary of John Donne’s “Meditation 17” in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, later published as the poem, “No Man is an Island.”
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
               Then there’s that other view of death from the pen of William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar: Caesar: "Cowards die many times before their deaths / The valiant never taste of death but once." Julius Caesar (II, ii, 32-37). In other words; why should the fear and anticipation of old age and death characterize us? Death will come when it will come. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s characters leaned toward predestination, both in the inevitability and the timing of significant events.
               I believe more in the significance of influences around us and their effects on critical constructions in our minds: more simply put, if my experiences and thoughts circle increasingly around aging and death, I can easily come to see the world as characterized by aging and death. The reverse, of course, is also true: if I remain fixed as much as possible on deliberate, ongoing participation in the events of the world, that will be the world view for which I will be known and by which I will continue to know myself. But as a TV ad says: “Good luck with that.”
Don’t retire; retool. The universe exists in your head.  
Next week, I hope we can all joyfully get on with it, whatever “it” is, as another ad says.

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