Thursday, December 09, 2010

TAKE A FOLDING CHAIR AND GO TO THE CEMETERY...

widow

The other day over lunch, a friend recalled an old Irish priest who often gave the above advice to troubled parishioners. That would put their problems in perspective, he said. Everyone at the table laughed, but I found myself gazing out the window of the restaurant at the brisk December day. I shivered imperceptibly as I imagined a harsh wind cutting across the open field of stones, and the relentlessness of a grey sky.


Maybe it’s my Irish blood, but the idea has its appeal for me. In fact, a couple of my fictional characters spend an inordinate amount of time doing just that. The first is a child who worries that his dead mother is out alone in the cold and rain. He goes to the cemetery, not so much to reflect or even to mourn, but to feel the chill and storm, the life that can no longer touch her. The second character, who broods over the love she lost decades earlier, probably has more in common with those the priest dispensed to the grave yard with an Old Testament style flourish. It might be--and probably was--a heartless prescription for many. But my character finds a heightened awareness, freedom from the non-stop lies the ego tells, and yes, a kind of courage there; and I'm sure that some of the priest's parishioners did, too.


I have also been rereading Montaigne’s essays, and one of his great questions--arguably his only question-- is how to deal with the fear of death. Montaigne found his version of the folding chair in the written pieces he first named “essays, or essais in French.” I suspect he called them “tries” that because he wasn’t expecting to get them right the first time, or perhaps ever. Montaigne accepted the limitations of seeing through a glass darkly, though it never stopped him from taking out his pen and writing toward the light. One of the most dogged revisers in history, he worked on the same collection for the rest of his life, adding to the essays as he expanded his knowledge of the world and more particularly, himself.


Then on Saturday, an unlikely person entered the discussion I was having with Montaigne and the priest. Someone in my household turned on a televised biography about Adam Lambert and as always, I was drawn to his voice. During the few minutes I watched, the narrator was saying that one of the the singer’s great gifts is that he doesn’t fear the stage. It’s something all of his fans know, but this time I heard it differently.


This time it seemed like the kind of secret you might hear if you sat on a folding chair in the cemetery long enough, or if you spent a significant portion your days in your writing tower trying to expand your knowledge and skill at life: Your time is brief. Give it. Risk it. And do it now. Don’t fear death; don’t fear the stage.

28 comments:

Patry Francis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ruahines said...

Kia ora Patry,
That is really wonderful advice from a cranky old Irish priest. I feel the same way about just sitting in some remote mountain spot. Peaceful Yuletide wishes to you.
Kia kaha.
Aroha,
Robb

Patry Francis said...

Kia ora Robb! I feel a little bit of the peace from your
mountains whenever I see your name. Thank you!

robin andrea said...

I really appreciate that old priest's advice. I have often thought that because we hide death in our culture, we hide a viscerally essential aspect of life. When my father was dying at home, I wanted to put a sign in the front window: My father lies dying in here.

I want that sign in windows across our country. I want the folding chair in the cemetery. I want to remember what is inevitable, and so not be afraid of the stage.

LitPark said...

Gorgeous and profound.

Jessica Keener said...

Embracing as only you can be. I used to spend a lot of time in cemeteries, rubbing graves. Was I trying to read death? Or decipher it? Perhaps.
Thanks for this post, Patry.

Sky said...

i love how you sometimes let us accompany you through the steps of your processing.

i wonder how much of our fear of death is related to the question of how painful that final act might be versus the uncertainty of what lies ahead or the concern about the ones we leave behind.

Lisa said...

So beautiful. Thinking of you.

Lorna said...

So much to think about---and in my case, it's certainly circular thinking. And I thought my most profound mental exercise was going to be "sweet shortbread or spicy shortbread?"

Mary said...

Patry, wonderful post (as was the last one). I watched Jonathan Franzen on Oprah. He was saying part of his process is eliminating noise as completely as possible and then focusing on whatever inside him is causing the most discomfort. If he can look and listen deeply, it might translate to the page. Though he wasn't talking about dying specifically and though I don't think he used the word fear, what I took away was facing those various fears and other feelings in order to pull up what you need for the writing process. I think fear of dying is often what you wrote: fear of the stage. Fear of living in general and fear of committing to a life that you love in particular. The way Adam Lambert puts everything he has into "Mad World" is how I'd like to write (fear of complete inability to approach Franzen-perfection not withstanding). Thanks for the post(s) and I hope all's well with you.

Patry Francis said...

robin: Not only would a sign in the window make us more conscious--and perhaps more at peace--with our own mortality, it might make us more compassionate about all the things that our frequently unkown neighbors struggle with. Maybe it would even make us wonder a bit about the human being behind the sign, the way I do when I see one of those impromptu shrines on the side of the road, piles of teddy bears and flowers that say someone recently died in that spot. Someone who was not expecting it. Someone who left their home that day or evening as oblivious to the fragility of life as we all are.

Sue: Thank you! I was thrilled to hear that UP FROM THE BLUE made the list of top 10 books for 2010!

Jessica: What an image of you rubbing the stones, trying to decipher death. No matter how much we think we know, we live with the mystery.

Sky: And I love how all of you become a part of the process, entering and expanding what began as a conversation in my head.

Montaigne claimed to have lost his fear of death after he fell from his horse and almost experienced it. He found it to be a gentle weaving in and out of consciousness. Of course, it doesn't always go that way, in which case I'm in favor of doing whatever possible to ease suffering. Last year, my cousin's relatively young, vigorous husband was put into a coma at the end of a protracted illness to spare him and the family. I hope--and believe--that gave him the kind of gentle end that Montaigne described.

Lisa: Always good to see you here! Thank you.

Lorna: Thank goodness you wandered in to lighten the mood! I think I'll go with the sweet shortbread.

Mary: I'm glad that you introduced the constraints that "fear of the inability to approach Franzen like perfection" induces. When I was contemplating the exhilarating freedom Adam Lambert gives himself on stage, I wondered how it would come off if he were less talented, or talented in a less recognizable way. It made me think of a biography I saw of Bob Dylan. He said or it was said of him that on stage, he wanted to project the kind of confidence that says, 'I know something you don't know.' That could sound arrogant, but I took it to mean, 'I have something to give you; listen.'I can't help wondering if the world might have missed his unique, off-key genius if he had less self-belief.

rdl said...

Nice post friend. just in from poetry group and it was a nice nitecap.

Patry Francis said...

R: I'd rather HAVE the night cap than be it, but thanks! Hope you had a good night at poetry group.

Laura J. Wellner (author pseudonym Laura J. W. Ryan) said...

A beautiful post, Patry!

Crockhead said...

Beautifully written of profound thoughts. I have a volume of Montaigne sitting on my shelf which I have never opened. You have provided the inspiration to open it and see what's there. (By the way, remember when the reading group you started read "Winter's Bone?" I see it's now a movie. Have you seen it?

Patry Francis said...

Laura: Thank you! Hope you enjoying your heaps of snow. I'm jealous...

Crockhead: Yes, I had one of those dusty volumes sitting around, and was inspired to take it out after I read several reviews of a new book about the philosopher. I think it's called "How to Live." I may pick it up at some point, but right now I'm thoroughly enjoying Montaigne himself. For a guy from the sixteenth century, he is surprisingly current.

As for Winter Bone, I've heard great things about the film, but haven't seen it. Have you?

Ancient Reader: If you're out there, please phone home. I miss you.

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Dawn Anon said...

beautiful and thought provoking.

I've never been scared of cemeteries and often wondered why people were. I walk in them, jog in them, we stop by the little old ones we happen past and look at the historic markers. Perfect comfortable in a cemetery.

In my career, i could work geriatrics. It would be a slower pace and safer. But i can't choose to do so. I work children... I've know it's about my own avoidance of the last life stage even though i can handle the actual death fine. Must be that i'm afraid of the stage.

Patry Francis said...

Dawn: Thank you! Just the other day, one of my mother's visiting nurses told me just the opposite story. She enjoys working with the elderly, but finds caring for sick children too painful. I think it proves we all have our role to play.

Zhoen said...

We get what everyone gets. We get a lifetime.

marja-leena said...

Profound and inspiring words, Patry, thank you!

Patry Francis said...

Zhoen: One lifetime and a mystery.

marja-leena: Do you know how much pleasure it brings me to see old friends like you (and Zhoen) here?

Laurun said...

Hi Patry,

Great post that promotes a lot of ideas.
We do have some noteworthy cemeteries to park a chair on the lawn and ponder. I've actually mediated in such areas. Yet, of course, the photo shoot options are limitless in these environments.
I printed up your list of things to do posted in November and I'm going to start doing them today.
I needed that boost of inspiration today.

Annie said...

Wonderful. Risk it. Yes!
Happy Holidays!
xoxo

Tinker said...

Sound advice - a sort of tough love twist on shining your light while your candle burns...or do I mean 'make hay while the sun shines? At any rate, thanks for the reminder that every day I wake up alive, it's a good day to get up off my duff and try to do something with my life...
Wishing you happy holidays with lots to celebrate. Merry Christmas, Patry!

Aimee said...

Your post really hit me today. I survived an aortic aneurysm. My open heart surgery was on 12-9-10. That I am here, today, seems amazing, even to me. I have no fear of death now. My only worry is for the ones I leave behind. I don't want them to be sad. I have gained a real desire to be alive, to taste great food, to be hugged, to travel, to write, to live!

Patry Francis said...

Laurun: Good to see you here on the blog. We'll have to take one of those walks through local history one of these days soon.

Annie: Risk it. That just may be my New Year's Resolution! Peace and happiness to you.

Tinker: Yes, I guess it is tough love--sometimes the only kind that gets through to me. Wishing you every good thing in the new year.

Aimee: Thank you for sharing your miracle, your truth, and your joy here. I'm so happy that you are well and strong, and maybe even more alive than ever.

Mary Sheehan Winn said...

I've always been a cemetery hanger. Something about the history and the lives lived. I read the stones and wander.
I guess it's my sixth decade but suddenly I feel the time going by too fast whereas before I thought I had all the time in the world.
We must have wine this summer!