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.