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:
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. 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 decided well in advance when 'your time was up', marking the date in indelible ink.
Death's been an issue for poets across the centuries. There's Robert Herrick' wonderful poem, written in the 1600s:
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. The poem is called: To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time. And it's not hard to guess what 'making much of time' might mean...
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 school's 'old boys', who attended the school 50, 60, 70 years before, and who are now 'food for worms'.
'Carpe Deum! ' Keating (stage)-whispers: '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. We all get caught. Death has a statistical probability of 1.0; it is 100% certain. Like a calendar, our days are numbered. As performance poet Myron Lysenko once wrote:
Death is the one test that everybody passes.
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 67 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. So - somewhere between my next breath and 30 or so years - is what I have left. Somewhere between one more lungful of air and 10,000 more days, to add to the 24500 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 could produce around 3000 or so blogs if I live to 97.]
Should I, then, 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 the island, every few days I throw this note in a bottle into the cyber-sea.
I can see little point in 'raging at the fading of the light'. It would be like King Canute setting up his throne on the beach and ordering the tide to stop coming in.
Our lives are a moment-to-moment proposition. As the Pythons reminded us:
'Cos when you think of it, life's a bit of shit.
Yes - life's a laugh and death's a joke - it's true ...'
But really, I don't think like that. Some years ago - it was December 2, 2006 - I delivered a blessing at the wedding of my son Erin and his wife Renae. Re-reading it, almost four years later, I'd want to stand by most of what I said on that day:
There is an old Sunday School chorus, expressing a traditional Christian sentiment. It goes:
Count your blessings, name them one by one
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done
In the Christian account of things, a blessing was a gift from God, something for which we should – rightly – be grateful.
The idea of a loving, caring father-like God, up in Heaven, raining his blessings upon people, was – and remains for many – a comforting image. But it’s not one we all ascribe to.
The Blessing that follows grows out of a Humanist tradition, out of the doubt and uncertainty that many have about the traditional views of things. It is a blessing that Athiests, Agnostics and Christian believers might comfortably share:
In this life, we share one certainty: that at some uncertain time we will all cease to be.
It is a bleak prognosis, one that could lead us to despair.
And yet there are blessings to be counted:
Above all else, we live and breathe and love and grow – we have the overwhelming blessing of life.
But there is so much more:
We have: Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.
We have: Netball and triathalons
We have: Monty Python, The Office, Billy Bragg; Weddings, Parties, Anything; breakfasts on weekends and latte
We have independent radio stations, like RRR
There’s the comforting thought that one day John Howard will NOT be Australia’s Prime Minister
We have Music – for which we can express our thanks – and guitars (and maybe even ukuleles)
I-pods, computers and other playthings
Renae and Erin, your blessings are many:
You are blessed with a changing cavalcade of friends, people who share their lives with you, as you share yours with them … who bring joy and pain, kindness and discomfort, generosity and demands …who bring needs and wants …
but who bring above all, affection, and who share with you their uncertainties, their hopes and fears, their jokes good and bad; and – Renae and Erin specifically asked me to include this item – of course, Dad jokes.
You both have the admittedly mixed blessing of parents and families. In the matter of friends, you had - & have - some choice, but you are stuck with parents and siblings:
People who love and disappoint
Who care, sometimes too much, sometimes too little
But who are more proud of the people you have become than you can imagine
You are both blessed with work that engages your passions and your energies, work that exhausts and satisfies you
You are blessed, too, with interests that consume you, and that give your lives that edge of excitement
Above all else, though, you are blessed that, in the random chaos of his world and the preoccupations of your busy lives, you chanced to meet; that despite the backdrop of existing commitments and full lives you found time for each other; that you came to share moments of such intimacy and pure bliss in each other’s company that you chose to defy the odds, to take the considerable risks – and get married.
You are blessed with naughty bits that can bring such pleasure and joy and closeness – an intimacy that passes all understanding.
Like births, marriages are times for rejoicing. They are times of new beginnings, times full of hope and promise. Marriage is an act of defiance. In joining together, as you have done, we stare down the dark side of the Force – we reject loneliness in favour of intimacy; we reject the notion of meaninglessness and despair - and we say instead: ‘In this relationship I find meaning and hope’.
Erin and Renae, we salute your courage. We wish you only the best.
And just as you are blessed, we are blessed in turn. We are blessed by knowing you, blessed by being able to see the joy and intimacy that you share as a couple; we are blessed that you are a part of our lives and that we are a part of yours.
Pop songs sometimes get to the heart of the matter, if at times with a mix of fairy floss and saccharine. The singer songwriter, Jewel, once wrote:
In this life, only kindness matters.
In this life, only kindness matters.
Be kind to each other. Be patient. Be tolerant. Especially you Renae. Be caring. And as for the rest – be buggered!