First it was Called Decoration Day

decorationday3. jpeg

 

After the Civil War soldiers and other family members would go to their local cemetery and decorate the graves of their fallen comrades and relatives with flowers. After the First World War, all war dead were honored in what came to be called Memorial Day.

 

decorationday
Decoration Day Parade 1870, St. Paul, Minnesota

 

On this day we remember the fallen who gave their lives for the ideals of an America they believed in. May their ultimate sacrifice not be in vain.

caninememorial
National Monument for Military Working Dogs. They are honored as fallen soldiers, too.

 

We must never forget the goals and aims of what our Founders envisioned for this ‘great experiment,’ no matter how dark the days may seem.

military3

 

Decoration Day
Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentry’s shot alarms!
Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet
At the cannon’s sudden roar,
Or the drum’s redoubling beat.
But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
No wound that bleeds and aches.
All is repose and peace,
Untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
It is the Truce of God!
Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.
                              — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Mary Oliver, September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, talking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world. —from “When Death Comes”

 

turkeyvulture

 

Mary Oliver died today.

Poet of nature, of spirituality; she loved all life.

Now she is with all of her beloveds…the two- and four-leggeds, the winged ones, the fishy furry slithery ones, the ones who grow tall from the forest floor their branches a shelter to the spidery predatory squirrelly ones.

Oliver’s death is an uncommon experience for me, since most of my favorite authors are classics writers and long dead! I don’t have to mourn the sudden silencing of their voice as I have to do now. But words live on and become more treasured than when uttered the first time. In 2017, I reviewed her latest collection of essays, called Upstream.

Looking for one of her works for this moment is impossible. There is never just one. So this:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? —“The Summer Day”

And this:

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?
—”At Blackwater Pond”

img_4311

The Inability to Read

I have had such an unexpected reaction to my dad’s death: I could not, for weeks, sit down to read. I could not concentrate on more than a few sentences on a page. In fact, I began to hate it, loathe it, “having to do it.” Was this grief and why was it affecting me this way?

Reading has been effortless and one of my greatest loves since I was a kid. It has been my refuge, my savior, my “figure outer” of pain or confusion and my voyage, my journey to great adventures of the mind. I grew up in a reading household; and after he retired and to the end of his life my dad read every afternoon. My mom belongs to two book clubs and they shared books and thoughts about what and who they were reading.

I never expected, even thought about, how this might affect me, but every time I picked up a book after Dad died, my thoughts went to the table he read at every afternoon, shutting himself away upstairs for a few hours. I never thought about this image all the years of his life, but it was all I could see in my mind after he died.

I have been a little scared, wondering if I would ever pick up a book again. I know that sounds terribly dramatic, but the whole experience was so unforeseen….

But last Sunday as I was sitting in the living room my eyes moved to the biography of Edith Wharton I was thrilled to find several months ago and picked it up. In the quiet of the afternoon I fell into the great life and adventures of this writer whom I have wanted to know more about. What a relief to lose track of time in a book as I was used to!

Although not a very articulate description, grief is weird and awkward. And while I have had other family members and close friends die, this has been the hardest and has affected me differently.

Time. Yes. I know….But oh, it feels so good to be reading and writing again!

Have any of you ever had a situation where you couldn’t read?

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (2006)

My Edition:yearmagicalthinking
Title: The Year of Magical Thinking
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Vintage International (Random House)
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 2006
Pages: 227
For a plot summary

 

I like Joan Didion’s work, but when this was originally released my best friend was dying and I just couldn’t touch it. Even though the book wasn’t about cancer, I didn’t want to read about death, as if doing so would be a jinx. And ha! now I understand that was MY bit of magical thinking.

“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”[i]

On December 30, 2003, as John Dunne was drinking Scotch and talking to his wife as she made them dinner, he had a massive heart attack.

Didion kept notes as a way to chronicle the many stages of grief she experienced during that first year after her husband’s death. I want to say right away this is not a depressing book. There are many moments of humor as is common even in the most grievous of situations. Instead, she chronicles the large and small thoughts and experiences as she tries to come to terms with his death.

The crazy thoughts that run through her mind ask—“could I have prevented his death in some way? Or could he? Were there clues to this impending tragedy that we both missed?”

~When John asked that they move back to New York City, she put him off, but if she hadn’t would that have affected his heart?

~If she alerted him to studies about the efficacy of low dose aspirin would that have saved him (even though she knew he was on the more powerful anticoagulant Coumadin)?

~In that last conversation before dinner he asked if the drink she made him was with single malt Scotch or the other Scotch, “because I don’t think you should mix them.” Did she miss the meaning there?

~Was he trying to tell her something a few years ago when he wondered if they were frittering away their lives and not really living?

“As I recall this I realize how open we are to the persistent messages that we can avert death.”[ii]

In the end, her grief turns to mourning as this first year passes into the second. Already some aspects of her husband are fading and she thinks of this as a betrayal. But she has to go on. She is still here.

Remembering bits of a conversation when they were swimming to a cave where the tide had to be just right to swim in, John said, “You have to feel the swell change. You have to go with the change.”[iii]

_____________

[i] p. 3.
[ii] p. 206.
[iii] p. 227.