O Death, Why Ye Chasin' Me?
I suppose if a person looked around each day, and worked hard enough at making their point, they could support a case that any given 24-hour period could have a "theme." And, if they were paranoid they could construe that perhaps that theme held deep meaning and empirical truths for their life. Or, they might just be an astute philosopher...most things about life can go either way.
Well, I'm neither paranoid, nor have worked very hard on this idea, but there DOES seem to be a theme emerging for me today and I might as well embrace it. Heck, I'll even attach deep meaning to it so I can get my daily dose of writing in post-haste.
So gather 'round, chillins, here is the story of how Death started chasing me in Chicago, and how I decided to spit in its eye...so to speak. Or...so to spit.
Last week, my family was in Chicago celebrating my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Our group traveled to the same intersection three different times for three different reasons. On the way to that particular location, we would pass by a used book store. Generally we would ride the bus there, and walk home in order to burn off all the calories we had just consumed.
Well, that used book store was pretty cool so we ducked in one day as I was desperately in need of something to read other than historical marriage and divorce law textbooks. "Oh, haaayyyy...." I said when we entered the store, in a slightly sing-songy voice, "They're celebrating BANNED BOOKS - woot! Woot!" Those last two words sounded like a 48 year-old woman trying to emulate her 20-something children. It was beyond pathetic.
My husband, who was used to these outbursts, said, "Okay there, cowgirl...calm down and either buy something or let's get out of here."
Having just eaten about two plates-o-food too many, I didn't have the will to engage in an intellectual battle of the wits so I acquiesced and got to work.
Look, look, look...THERE! In no time I found a book about which I had heard all sorts of literary acclaim over the years, but had no idea re: the synopsis. I seized the book without even glancing inside the jacket, thinking I would improve my brain with whatever lie within. We went to the counter, paid three dollars, and sashayed on down the sidewalk.
Later when we were riding the bus to one of our excursions I got out my book, investigated the "Banned Books!" bookmarker with pride, and began reading.
By the third poem I looked up with a furrowed brow, found my husband and said, "Uh - Mick? I think this book is full of poems about the lives of people who are now dead." Mick replied, "Why did you buy a poetry book? And, please don't ask me to read that, okay?"
I don't remember if he really said that. I was just trying to make the story better....
After THEN reading the back cover of the book, it became clear to me that the Spoon River Anthology is indeed a heralded literary work about "no less than 200 characters" who have all passed away. I was reading, basically, all the things the dead people in chairs in "Our Town" would have said if they would have given them a lot more time in the script.
Okay, I could live with this. It was, after all, pretty good. And in case you were wondering, I'm about halfway through the book now and have decided I'm very glad we now have inoculations to prevent lockjaw death.
Flash forward to this morning...I'm now in Providence, Rhode Island and have just returned from a quick run-walk to explore my surroundings.
The first thing I found was the Roger Williams Memorial Park. So, since this was a "memorial" park, I assumed Roger Williams was dead. Usually the word "memorial"means someone has passed on. Guess what, that's what this sign meant too!
Having been validated by the historical marker that Roger Williams had indeed passed on, I found his life to be an extremely interesting read. Notably, he started the first Baptist church and came to the conclusion through scripture that infant baptism wasn't really the way to go. He also was one of the first proponents to separate issues of church and state, believing that religion was personal and the state shouldn't compel citizens in certain ways. And also, he founded Providence.
I think I'll leave the political history now and go back to dead things.
So, I then jogged down one side of the park and walked a few small streets full of shops with window cases. That was when I spied this take on interior design, no doubt in preparation for the upcoming Halloween festivities...
On my way back to the hotel, I jogged up the other side of the park but had to stop for a breather because it was up a hill. I'm still suffering from the effects of that amazing Chicago pizza! While huffing on the sidewalk, I spied this marker and smiled:
The title of that marker was extremely clear. Yup, he's gone from here. In a way, it was as if Roger Williams' "Out of Office" auto response mechanism was permanently activated on his e-mail. I decided right then and there that "Gone from Hence" is what I shall request to go on my grave marker. There are several reasons for that:
- It's funny to me. I really like it.
- It doesn't overlay or project some quote that summarizes my life in any way.
- I think there is far too little Pilgrim-speak in our world these days.
Reason number two is how I want to wrap up this post, however, because this whole Spoon River anthology review has given me three poems thus far about people who mention their headstones and the meaning, or confusion, imparted with the message carved into the marble.
These poems are powerful. One voice from the grave says, "People wrote something on my headstone that in no way reflects the life I knew." A second voice stated, "I don't even know what that Latin phrase they wrote means." And the third vocalized the Truth behind the metaphor of a sailboat without wind, grieving the fact that he was too scared to take risks and never really lived life.
I'm going to share these poems with you, and hope I'm not breaking copyright laws. I doubt it, as this post can be called "educational," and the first publication was in 1915. By sharing them, my hope for you is that you have a moment of reflection - life, meaning, dead things, skeletons, memorial parks...that's up to you. Good luck with that.
For me, I'm going from hence to dinner. I hope they're not serving deep dish pizza.
They have chiseled on my stone the words:
“His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him
That nature might stand up and say to all the world,
This was a man.”
Those who knew me smile
As they read this empty rhetoric.
My epitaph should have been:
“Life was not gentle to him,
And the elements so mixed in him
That he made warfare on life,
In the which he was slain.”
While I lived I could not cope with slanderous tongues,
Now that I am dead I must submit to an epitaph
Graven by a fool!
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me –
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire –
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.
I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wished I had staid at home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the arm.
Rather a thousand times the county jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, "Pro Patria."
What do they mean, anyway?