I wrote on Monday about existential sadness and how that’s not the same thing as being hopeless or needing cheering up. The sadness has to do with mortality, with the fleetingness of existence and the impossibility of ever holding onto anything we love. I’ve noticed that in the past couple of years I’ve thought a lot more about this than I ever did before — and I wouldn’t say I didn’t think about it before. I don’t know that this makes me sadder than I used to be, or more thoughtful, or anything except that I just carry this knowledge with me a lot more. Maybe it started after I turned 30, maybe it started after Tisha died, maybe it’s because of our travels, maybe it’s because Gong-Gong died. Who knows. It’s just there now, almost always, underneath the happiness and the delights and the peaceful moments and the not-so-peaceful ones: the knowledge that whatever this moment is, it will never come again, and indeed, perhaps soon no moments will ever come for me again (after all, how can we know?). It’s strange, but it doesn’t take away the happiness; it just changes its nature a little, like a drop of red in a glass of water: it’s almost invisible, but you’ll never be able to get it out again.
I’ve mentioned that this apartment (which is not my apartment, if you’re new to the blog) is full of books, mostly poetry. There is even a little bookshelf in the bathroom; I like to read the titles on the spines as I’m brushing my teeth. One of the books is Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, and on Saturday night I decided to actually take it down and open it (again while brushing my teeth. I don’t think Poetry for Toothbrushing is a good title, nor fair to the poets, but I sure as heck would read that book). I knew Kenyon’s poem, “Otherwise,” from some recent encounter I can’t remember now — the only thing I remember is the poem — and it struck me as the perfect capture of that existential loop, the “everything matters but soon we will die.”
Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise”
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
I flipped through the book and enjoyed some of Kenyon’s other poems — in the same bittersweet way — most notably “Having it Out with Melancholy.” Then I read her author bio, and then looked her up on Wikipedia.
This is what I learned from the book: Jane Kenyon died at 47, of leukemia. About a year into her illness she had a bone marrow transplant, and for a little more than a month it seemed to be working, and then they learned from bloodwork that the disease hadn’t gone away at all. She died eleven days later.
This is what I learned from Wikipedia: her husband, the poet Donald Hall, was 19 years her senior. When they’d been married for about 17 years, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and it metastasized to his liver; he had two surgeries and chemo and was eventually given a one in three chance of surviving the next five years. Instead, he lived and is still living now. But it’s during those five years that they found out she had leukemia.
Six years or so from his diagnosis to her death, six years during which there must never have been a moment when they didn’t think one of them was going to die and the other was going to have to watch it happen. They did have many happy years together, their work was recognized, and that should count for something, but still. In the way of mythology I find myself imagining a choice offered by an immortal being: would you exchange a long lifetime of togetherness for those six years of illness and an early legacy of beautiful poetry?
Would you? Would I?
And does it matter, since the choice was not given?
I was frustrated that my son procrastinates what I think is important, as in chores, homework,etc. My son told me that after going through me having lymphoma and realizing I could be lost, he thinks there are more important things in life. I had not once thought of the long lasting effects on him (he was told he still has to do homework though). I figured all was well because I was well. He’s only 17, and this awareness of life that you are talking about, has come to him much earlier than it does to most. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not; time will tell, but for some reason it makes me sad. Would I give up having my writing recognized for more time with my family? You bet I would. In a heartbeat. My writing is for them, for me, not for recognition anyway. But yes, I would even give up writing itself for more time with them. Luckily though, I also don’t have to make that decision.
Ohhh… wow. I suppose no one can ever really know the effect of a difficult situation on a young person. I remember thoughts I had as a child, and looking back at them now I’m amazed at my mental processes, just what I made of these things I couldn’t understand. At 15 or so Erik experienced (not sure that’s the right word, “experienced,” but I can’t think of anything better) the traumatic death of someone very close to him and I’m not sure that even he knows all the ways that ended up shaping his adult self.
Your comment makes me wonder, though, just what I imagined when I pictured a mythological choice between art and family. In your case, you have a partner and child (and perhaps you were thinking of other family members too); in my case there’s a big unknown where my children might one day be. Would I give up art for a long life with Erik? (I’m pretty sure I would.) Does that answer change if there are also kids in the picture? (Maybe I’d take “pretty sure” out of my reply.) What if all this happened in some limbo space before my birth and the choice was “would you rather have a long life with a loving partner or would you rather create great art,” and neither the specifics of that relationship nor the potential of my art were known to me? Anyway, these are just dinner-party questions, or maybe writing prompts. 😉 Thank god they’re hypothetical… or, at least, more nuanced in real life than the choices given in legend.
Hmmm. When I was around your age I went through a phase when I couldn’t stop thinking about death. Every night before I fell asleep my mind would wander back to thoughts of death, the inevitability of it, the actuality of one day being six feet under the ground. It was terrifying and I would be stricken with panic every night, and this went on till I hit 34….and then I got over it.
The Jane Kenyon story was interesting and very sobering.
I was going to ask what happened to get you over it at 34, but then I realized I also need to ask what you mean by “got over it.” Did you stop thinking about it? Or do you still think about it, but it no longer bothers you? Or it still bothers you, but only momentarily? Or something else?
I guess the fear just gradually wore itself out until I was no longer thinking about it so much 🙂 Or maybe I stopped worrying so much about death itself and more about suffering , like the way people with cancer suffer. Hospitals now worry me more than death. Also old age and infirmity. *sigh*. Did you read Christopher Hitchens’ last articles?
Yes… my family now has a saying; when we hear about someone elderly who dies suddenly, we say, “He was lucky.” I doubt that’s helpful to the people who loved that person, but after seeing my grandfather linger on for so long (and our Tisha-cat with cancer)… that’s one of the reasons I included “death is the worst thing that can happen to someone” in my previous post about assumptions I no longer believe (or no longer believe I should believe). I guess there are so many different kinds of deaths and mortality, though; there’s the end of the person, and there are the circumstances of that end, and how everyone (including the person who dies) felt about it.
I haven’t read any Hitchens, no.
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