What is Death, Henry Scott Holland

What is Death

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
that we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference in your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without affect,
without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolutely unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am waiting for you,
for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just around the corner.

All is well.

 

I’ve been thinking about this poem a lot the last couple of weeks. When I was at church the Sunday before Lent began, we were celebrating, as our congregation always does, with a wonderful brass band. It’s made up of some exceptionally talented members of our community, and when they play for us (typically on that Sunday and on Easter), it energizes everyone. For an hour, it felt like Mardi Gras had truly descended on us. The only downside to this particular service is that every year at its conclusion, we sing a hymn called “Glory Glory (Since I Laid My Burdens Down).” It’s one of my favorites, and it also happens to be a song that I asked to have included in my grandmother’s memorial service a few years ago.

My grandmother and I were very close. We spent a lot of time together, just the two of us, especially until I was about ten, and even after I moved three thousand miles away in my twenties, I tried to come back and visit her four or five times a year. As she got frailer in her nineties, I still enjoyed going out to sit by the river with her, or to get an ice cream because she managed to keep her good humor and sharp wits about her nearly to the end. I’m sure her body often hurt, that she was frustrated when she couldn’t speak as quickly as she wanted or dig into a ham sandwich on rye with the vigor she’d had even at eighty-five, but she never complained to me. She was practically blind by then (a particular sorrow for a woman who dearly loved to read), but she would sit and hold my hand, enjoying the sunshine and listening with eagle ears to the busy world around us.

After she was gone, I realized that many of my earliest memories were of her. She taught me to read and write in cursive long before those activities might have interested me in school. She had such beautiful handwriting, and she would write me little stories so I could practice deciphering the text and rewriting it myself. When we ate lunch together, she would pull out two pretty aluminum tv trays and set them up in front of the bay window in her apartment; I would spread out the special embroidered place mats and together we would make peanut butter sandwiches cut twice to form four triangles. As we ate, we would sit and watch the commuter trains go by and she would listen quietly while I talked (and talked and talked).

As the second child, I especially appreciated and craved the kind of dedicated love and respect she gave to me. She never expected anything of me other than to exhibit a joy for learning new things; she saw the world as an adventure waiting to unfold, and she wanted me to see and believe that too. In return, I never questioned the old-fashioned nature of our favorite past times – stringing wooden beads, or playing Authors, or learning to read aloud sentences from the worn books in her old wooden chest. She would crawl under tables with me to play pirates and into bushes that had holes just the right size for the two of us. My faith in her as a playmate and confidante was absolute.

I think of her often, but never more so than when I hear that particular song – a spiritual written about finding, finally, a release from trouble and pain. It’s a joyful song, especially when played with unbridled enthusiasm by a brass band and sung by 250 people, but it never fails to make me cry by the third verse (I feel better, so much better, since I laid my burdens down). I don’t like to cry in public, so I usually end up mouthing the lyrics through to the end while trying to pretend that everything is completely fine. It’s probably a futile exercise, but I persist because the wave of sadness it brings reminds me of Holland’s simple verses – that the pain of loss should not taint the joy of who a person was in life.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy, Alison Bechdel

I’ve gotten away with reading some lighthearted books this month, and honestly, when I picked up Fun Home (a Christmas gift from my husband), my brain only processed the comedy half of “tragicomedy.” I was having trouble sleeping, and this seemed like the perfect remedy. It’s a graphic novel (although the style is composed in such a way that even my brain can process it), it’s been on my reading list for a while, and I tend to think of Bechdel as a comedic online presence, although that’s not strictly an accurate description of her body of work.

Bechdel is a deeply intellectual woman who, for almost thirty years, has been writing about the frustrations, limitations, and ridiculous incongruities of womanhood and sexuality, and while she does approach these topics (and others, like her family, the focus of this memoir), with a healthy sense of humor, her observations are razor-sharp and often devastating. Her writing and illustrations don’t skirt the inconvenient or uncomfortable truths she has encountered. Instead, she leans into the moments of drama, drawn from her own life experience, without attempting to spare herself or save face.

Reading Fun Home, I often found myself trying to skim over the hardest sections on her behalf. I thought about what it must be like for her family to have their lives shared in such a raw way; while she is far from the first artist to mine her own history for this kind of material, as a reader, I struggle with the sacrifices that come with such a choice. I wanted to spare her the uncertainty, the missed opportunities for family acceptance, the terrible secrets that were kept from her until adulthood. As ridiculous as it is to crave such a thing – to believe that averting my eyes from her confessions would ease some of the pain she’s had to endure – her presence as a writer draws out the most empathetic parts of me. Her vulnerability is truly a remarkable strength.

Her openness too though is a source of power. Society leans toward secrecy, toward hiding the less desirable parts of ourselves, but there is an incredible freedom in accepting the flaws and challenges that come from being human. Shaming those parts, or even politely declining to acknowledge them, is a misplaced attempt at perfection and uniformity. It brings no joy to deny the unique journey every person is on; in fact, it eats at the heart of the kind of power that brings a book like this to life. Really, it destroys the power that brings any number of books to life.

As readers, we crave authenticity, whether it be in memoir or in fiction, in three lines of poetry or in a thousand page fantasy. The human experience as viewed through a million imperfect lens is what fills library shelves and brings us closer to each other while feeding our enthusiasm and understanding of the wider world. A book like Fun Home, which blends the visually light style of a graphic novel with the emotionally challenging landscape of Bechdel’s youth is just one more lens we can peer through, accepting, hopefully, both the hard truth and her compassion on the other side.

 

For more about Alison Bechdel, go here.

Alice in Zombieland, Gena Showalter

I know we’re only two days away from a three-day long weekend, but the last week has been a real slog of post vacation blues. Usually this is a condition I suffer, at most, a day or so, but I have not been able to let go this time. I crave more sun! More family time! More hours to lazily read zombie novels while the waves crash at my feet!

Yes, while on vacation, I finished the two books I’d brought (unheard of!) and ended up downloading one at random from my Amazon wish list. As is the case with many of the titles collected there, I couldn’t remember where I had tagged it from or what it was about; all that mattered was that it looked like just the right level of popcorn fiction for the occasion at hand. Judging by the quick three-day turn around (read exclusively on beaches or while waiting for my turn to scrub sunscreen-cemented sand off), it was the right choice.

Now, this is not one of those books I’d blithely recommend to just anyone. First of all, it has a teen romance element I was neither expecting nor particularly enamored with. Secondly, it’s about zombies. Now, personally, I love a good zombie book. While I often find television and movie depictions of the genre too intense, I find the right novel, laced with a healthy dose of humor, to be intriguing. (For example, I’m more of a Shaun of the Dead fan than The Walking Dead.)

It’s not an area of fiction where I’ve generally found much traction. While vampires, werewolves, and otherworldly spirits have long dominated the shelves, zombies seem to continuously slip by on the reader popularity scale. I think I’ve only reviewed one other even remotely similar title here, and that was a few years back now. I’m certain some of you are genre aficionados and will be able to point me toward some great titles, but it still stands that as far as monster fiction goes, the pickings are rather slim.

It was with great joy, then, that I discovered Alice. Although the character is flawed in some very realistic adolescent ways, the writing was never less than compelling. The pacing was perfect for such a story, and even when I rolled my eyes at descriptions of muscle-bound teenage delinquent zombie hunters, I was also completely hooked. The kids Showalter was describing – burn outs and troublemakers and victims of great tragedies – did seem like the perfect army to fight the undead. They had that ideal combination of ridiculous unflagging energy and young bones that could take brutal beatings and realistically recover in a few days or weeks.

The end result was a guilty pleasure that practically had “vacation reading” stamped on the cover. I didn’t even have to break a sweat to finish this before we flew home, and it was the perfect companion to that brief bit of summer I glimpsed during this interminable winter.

 

For more about Gena Showalter and the White Rabbit Chronicles, head here.

Greenglass House, Kate Milford

Is there anything better than a warm vacation in the dark of winter? Yes – a warm vacation in the dark of winter with a really excellent book (obviously.) But don’t worry, I’m not going to brag about taking a holiday. Even when I know I have one coming, or just got back, I loathe reading about someone else’s trip while I’m forced to convince myself to venture out into the rain or snow. I think it’s human nature – no matter how kind a person may be – to loathe the good fortune of others when it comes to time off. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a particularly awful person, but now that I’m home, I plan to comfort myself with the knowledge that none of us really want to hear about (or, God forbid, see pictures) of someone else’s week away. I will spare you that, and instead focus on the kind of pleasure we can all enjoy – the sweet satisfaction that comes from reading a fantastic book.

I bought Greenglass House on a whim as a Christmas gift for my mother. It was advertised on Amazon (undoubtedly because I have a book buying problem, and that site knows exactly how weak I am), and after reading the first few pages, I was hooked and ordered it immediately. When I got to my parents’ house in December and unwrapped it, I was delighted by the beautiful cover and the feel of the particular paper used. I’m not a publishing expert, but there’s something about the paper stock in hardcover middle grade novels that immediately brings me a deep sense of joy. It was physically painful to have to wrap it up again and give it away on Christmas morning, regardless of the fact that my parents long ago taught me that the gifts I loved dearly were the ones most worth giving away.

Thankfully, my mother is the best sort of person to give books to because she immediately senses the giver’s reluctance and offers to share it back again (after she’s read it, of course – she’s not a saint). She sent it back to me a week before my vacation, promising me that I would love it, and of course, she was right.

There was something about this book that I found…magical. Every time I picked it up, I was swept back into the very sweetest parts of my childhood – those hours spent buried in books, as well as those lost in exploration of the ramshackle thirteen room parsonage we lived in for many years. Milton managed to perfectly capture that thrill of discovery, the wonder of childhood that transforms the ordinary into the exceptional. As I was reading, I ached to go back in time, to climb into deep, dirty closets and find, not a project to organize, but the key to another world.

When I was young, of course, there were plenty of days when I was bored, anxious to grow up and go off on real adventures, and fortunately, as an adult, I’ve tried not to let that younger self down. What I didn’t understand then though, was what those grown up adventures would cost me. Riding on the coattails of joy at discovering new places, there came an understanding of reality that forced shut some of the doors of my imagination forever. Milton’s novel pried open some of those doors again, if only an inch, to remind me of the great and glittering adventures that still exist at home when I bother to look with fresh eyes.

 

For more about Kate Milton, head over here.

There is Pleasure in the Pathless Woods, George Gordon Byron

I’m on vacation this week, and this is the piece I’ve been meditating on as we hike and swim and rest our busy minds at the end of this, the darkest month of the year.

 

There is Pleasure in the Pathless Woods

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark, Ryan Knighton

I have been wanting to read Ryan Knighton’s memoir about his first year of parenting as a blind man since I heard an interview with him on NPR in 2010. Unfortunately, the book proved hard to find here in the States, and when I put it on my Christmas list this year, I didn’t have high hopes. Consequently, I was amazed and thrilled when my in-laws were able to find it for me, and it ended up in my stack of must-reads for this January.

Admittedly, my memory of the book was limited to its topic, and to the compelling section read on This American Life – a passage about Ryan and his infant daughter, alone in a college campus parking lot early one morning in the moments after the girl utters one of the few words she knows (and that her father knows she knows). That word was bear. Very little could sum up the hysteria and helplessness that plagued much of Knighton’s first year better than that scene, and it stayed with me over the last four years.

His storytelling was in equal parts hilarious and frightening, and when I finally got a chance to read about the rest of his experience, I also found it heart-wrenching. In fact, I cried at least once every chapter. I also cried when I finished the book, and when I considered how many obstacles face parents with disabilities. It’s hard to admit, but I’d never given it much thought before. As a teacher, my mind has always focused on the experience from the child’s perspective – how the child, and his or her abilities, fit into the classroom, the wider family unit, and the world at large. It had never occurred to me just how frustrating and frightening it would be to perform simple tasks with a baby without sight, mobility, hearing. While I have been trained, over many years, to recognize the signs of abuse or neglect, of emotional instability in parent or child, of the challenges that exist for a child with special needs, I haven’t given enough thought to how a condition, such as Knighton’s degenerative blindness, would strain a couple and their new child.

Blindness has taught me to move through space exclusively by memory, even in my own home. Rats navigate this way too. Their movements are patterned, and the patterns are remembered by their muscles, not their minds. If a rat runs along the edge of a particular wall on a feeding route, and that wall is removed, the rat will continue to run along the phantom edge. Rats map the ghosts of bygone buildings. I move likewise through my home, habituated to its different turns and timing. That’s why, if I move too fast, or lose track of my angle, I can actually become disoriented in my own home. I live in a habit, not a space.

This is why, as I bolted through the doorway carrying Tess and her soother, I clipped the threshold with my arm. And with Tess’ little head. The sound was like the strike of a hammer on wood.

At that moment, I was introduced to her pain cry, which I thought I knew, but had actually never been heard before. It may have been her first pain from without. She was inconsolable. Me, too.

The ember in my skull felt at its brightest, and the most searing, and suddenly I saw the fear for what it was. Tess, whom I couldn’t soothe, represented the greatest pain I would ever know, should something happen to her, and worse, should I be to blame. Parents endure a constant, low-grade anxiety, it’s true, but the love that fills us is made of equal parts terror. I wasn’t afraid of Tess, but afraid of my love for her. It could, and will, hurt me one day, and so I’d stood back from it, so wary, so taken by self-preservation. I was in awe of this love. I was also ashamed of how I’d received it.

“I’m so sorry, Papa’s so sorry,” I pleaded as we sat on the couch.

Of course Tess couldn’t tell me she was okay, nor could she forgive me. My own pain cycled through my body, as did hers, unable to find an exit. A sadness clung. I couldn’t shake the thought that I’d hurt her. Didn’t matter that it was an accident – I was the cause. My blindness had shown the smallest example of what it could do to her, and to me as a father.

Knighton, as a man and a father, is not any better or worse than the average first time dad. The difference, though, is how hard he has to work for it. Every task he takes on is more fraught. Every task he can’t do is a greater burden on his wife. He is caught constantly in that struggle, twitching between independence and fear, ability and its natural limitations. His struggles and successes are familiar ones, but they’re painted with a new brush here.

 

For more about Ryan Knighton, head over here.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, Stephen Collins

I have to admit, I bought this book entirely because of its title. I was looking for Christmas gifts for my brother, and he’s a beard guy. To be clear, he’s not sporting one of those handsome, carefully maintained beards, but rather, a look that shouts “I just wandered out of the deep backwoods.” (I’m positive I’ve seen small twigs and feathers stuck in it before.) We’re part Norwegian too, so although his hair is dark blonde, his beard is as red and thick and gnarly as a viking, and when I saw the illustration on the cover of Collins’ graphic novel, I knew I had to buy it.

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of graphic novels. I have nothing against them except that I find the style challenging to read. The combination of art and text often gives me eye strain and a headache, so while I would like to pick up a series (like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, for example), the impending migraine just isn’t worth it. Collins’ book, however, gave me no trouble at all. I don’t know whether it’s related to how he’s laid out the material or if it’s simply a side benefit of using black and white art instead of color, but I tore through it on the day after Christmas. (I wanted to steal it immediately after my brother opened it, but he selfishly wouldn’t let me, claiming he had rights to the first read. Brothers – so unreasonable!)

The title (and the first few pages I’d read when I purchased it) had led me to believe it would be a comedy, but in fact, I found the story painful and beautiful and sad. Collins is not only a gifted artist but an insightful storyteller, and I was completely captivated from start to finish. I also found myself constantly wondering about the direction he was taking the story. For me, it is a rare treasure to find a book with a relatively simple concept so deftly told that I couldn’t deduce the ending from the halfway point.

By the time I arrived at the end, I only wished to read more, to have a sequel to pick up that might unravel the story that clearly exists after the final page. It’s not that he needs one, but Collins has clearly imagined a whole world for his put-upon protagonist that the reader will never see, but I, for one, am desperate to know more about.

 

For more about Stephen Collins, head over to his beautiful website.