Writing and death
‘It’s second nature to me now
Like breathing out and breathing in’
From ‘My Fair Lady’
For any reader who does not where the title of this blog came from, it was a poem – a villanelle – by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The poem began:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the passing of the light
Thomas addressed the words – the poem – to his dying father, who – as death drew near -accepted its inevitability quietly, without putting up a fight; this angered Thomas, who penned this villanelle. As poets will.
I’ve been pondering death a bit lately. I suppose it’s inevitable as you approach your twilight years. Over the past 12 months or so, I have had good reason to dwell on the thought of death.
In August, 2015, my Uncle Doug died of cancer. In the May the doctors “gave him” three months”. He lasted for four. He died peacefully, without pain, watching television with his son. A few months later, Jenny Haines – who I met in the 1970s, and with whom I edited two books of short stories for the English teachers’ association – died unexpectedly. Jenny was in her early 60s. Next, early in 2016, Aunty Doreen died at the age of 87. It was Aunty Doreen who first spilled the beans about the fact that I was ‘not really a Kipping’ but had been adopted.
On April 28, 2016, Karin’s mother died after a massive heart attack. Karin had been her sole carer for six or seven years. I had known Stephanie – Mutti – for thirty years. Karin and our girls and I are still grieving her death. Three weeks later Ray Haines – pianist, drummer and woodworker – had a massive heart attack and died. John Byrnes, Ray Haines and I had played in a band together for over a decade. And then, on Oct. 16, Meryl Hyde – a friend for 42 years – died of cancer. Over her final year of life I visited Meryl most Saturdays and chatted with her about families, life, death, literature, writing, teaching and learning.
So … death has been much on my mind this last year. And I daresay, it will be for years to come.
My father had a fatalistic view of death. He’d often say, ‘You die when your time comes, and that’s that.’ As though God had a large calendar, and had decided well in advance when ‘your time was up’.
Death’s been an issue for poets across the centuries. There’s Robert Herrick’s wonderful poem, written in the 1300s:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
For summer if a flying
And that sweet rose that blooms today
Tomorrow will be dying.
Typically of poets, he uses the imminence of death as an argument to his love to … yield herself to him. Sexually. The poem is called: To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.
That age is best which is the first
When youth and blood are warmer
But being spent, the worse and worst
Times still succeed the former
So be not coy, but use your time
And, while ye may, go marry
For having lost but once your prime
You may forever tarry
The poem is a centre-piece of the film Dead Poets’ Society. John Keating, the English teacher (played by Robin Williams) has the boys read the poem while they stand in front of a glass cabinet that contains the schools’ old boys, who attended the school 50, 60, 70 years before, and who are now ‘food for worms’.
Keating (stage)whispers to the boys: ‘Carpe Deum! … Seize the day, boys… Make your lives extraordinary.’
Have you seen the film Where the Heart is? There is a most extraordinary line in the film. One the characters says, at one point: ‘Our lives turn on a breath.‘ And that is the truth. There is no avoiding death. Some wit once expressed the view: There are two things that are unavoidable: death and taxes! Well he was wrong, of course. You can avoid taxes, and lots of people do, and some get caught and some don’t. But death is unavoidable. It has a statistical probability of 1.0; it is 100% certain.
I’ve looked at the statistics, and I estimate that I have somewhere between my next breath and 30 years or so to live. I’m 73 at the moment. More and more people are living into their late 90s. I’ve never smoked and never been a drinker. Statistically that’s significant. But it may or may not make a difference in my case – you never know. So – somewhere between my next breath and 20 or 25 or so years from now – is what I have left. Somewhere between one more lungful of air and 10,000 more days, to add to the 26600 or so I’ve had thus far.
I could write a lot of poems and stories and blogs and novels in that time. [At my current rate of blogging, I’d produce around 3000 or so blogs.]
Should I go writing into that good night? I can’t see why not. Writing, almost like breathing, is ‘second nature to me now.’ Like a sailor stranded on an island, every few days I throw this note in a bottle into the cyber-sea.