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A day marking birth & death


TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

Yesterday I went to a birthday party — my friend Audrey’s 80th. There was a table of yummy food and rooms filled with friends; spontaneous words spoken by a circle of admirers lounging in the afternoon sun and a video retrospective sent by son David; a large chocolate birthday cake baked by local caterer Cynthia Moriarty, 2 specially-written-for-the-day tribute songs, and a private concert by local a cappella group Kaia. We celebrated Audrey’s life of theater, activism, and love.

Yesterday I went to a funeral home — as one of 5 women performing a tahara, the ritual preparation of a body for burial. We slowly washed Rivkah bat Abraham v’Sarah with soapy cloths and rinsed her with 3 buckets of flowing water; dressed her in white shrouds tied with special knots; recited quiet prayers and sprinkled soil from Jerusalem into her coffin before closing it forever. We apologized for any inadvertently rough handling. I found myself stroking her hair repeatedly and tenderly, my mind on Yeats: the center cannot hold.

The beginning is clear, the end always certain, and in the middle… Days. Good, bad, and indifferent, each one comes whether we’re ready or not, filling the always-in-process middle with hundreds of thousands of (if we’re lucky) hours of living.  But this center doesn’t hold — not the individual moments strung together (by the time you finish reading this: more moments on the other side of the line dividing past from future). Not our expectations or denials, our needs & wants, blessings or curses. It stretches, this center, and morphs and teases us with all manner of illusion. But it doesn’t hold. Eventually, each of us ends up somewhere as a body awaiting burial.

Sorry to be such a downer. Truly. I’m not that happy to think these thoughts, let alone share them, but there’s something about being on the other side of 50 that has shifted my orientation from upstream to down. Every day matters more. The word truth engraved on my arm isn’t only a reminder to write or speak the truth in an ordinary sense (as if truth’s ordinary). It is a reminder that all creation comes in the shadow of death, the only fact besides birth of which we can be sure. There’s something comforting in that. Worth celebrating with yummy chocolate cake? Probably not. But check back with me on that one. I really like chocolate.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah Rubin permalink
    10/18/2010 8:44 pm

    Thank you, thank you! You are such a beautiful poet — prose-poet in this case.

    It’s odd — if you hadn’t identified this as a “downer,” I’m not sure I would have seen it that way. I am profoundly moved by the notion that “It stretches, this center, and morphs and teases us with all manner of illusion. But it doesn’t hold. Eventually, each of us ends up somewhere as a body awaiting burial.” It’s humbling. Yes, our life is finite. What is so moving to me is your compassion as you mark the anniversaries of beginnings, and as you help a soul to travel onward at the end. That’s what makes the middle worthwhile.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      10/18/2010 9:19 pm

      Oh I’m so glad you liked the line that ends with “a body awaiting burial.” I was afraid that was just too much, but then I looked at my arm (still 3/4 sleeve weather) and was reminded why I write (i.e., the truth) and there the sentence stayed as is.

  2. Julie Bloom permalink
    10/19/2010 8:12 pm

    “…this world so small and strange, where all things begin in the middle of their growth and end there…” Remember that line from our Renewal liturgy? No matter how many times I read it, my eyes start to fill up. Maybe it’s about the power of the middle, the unknown, the mystery.

    As usual, my dear friend, I loved today’s blog. Yesterday WAS definitely an amazing day of life and death.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      10/19/2010 9:02 pm

      I do remember that line from the liturgy and how it got you every time. I never quite understood that until Sunday’s one-two punch.

  3. 10/20/2010 12:39 pm

    Wow. Powerfully spoken. That wasn’t a downer, it was affirming of a truth that we all too often take for granted. And the words were hopeful, too. The middle may not hold, but it is the one part that is not certain. We can make of it what we want. My rabbi once said that we are a parenthesis in Eternity. This is true….but, we can put whatever we want into that parenthesis.

    Isn’t there a famous speach about how important the dash between the birth date and the death date is?

    • sue swartz permalink*
      10/20/2010 3:26 pm

      Oooh, if there’s a famous speech, I’d love to know about it. I’m going to ask around.

      As for your rabbi’s fabulous “parenthesis in eternity”, I may steal it, though not outright. Poets are stealth thieves.

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