Monday, April 25, 2016

A Week of Thomases

I did that dumb thing where I stacked up books with dozens of dog-eared pages and then quickly lost what I wanted to tell you.   I got sick and then Samantha got sick.  The weather turned cold.  Spring in Southwest Michigan is doing this weird, hot-flashy thing where I'm not sure if I need wool socks or shorts from one day to the next.  It makes me cranky, which makes me pause: who am I to tell the earth what she should be doing?

In happier news, Samantha turned two and started speaking in full sentences overnight, and I read a book I've been meaning to read for years: The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch.

Lynch is a poet, an essayist and, incidentally, a funeral director.  It's hard to believe that's his real name, but I'm pretty sure it is.  He writes about the living as he views us after years of handling the dead. 

It was a little surreal to finally read a writer I'd heard about for so long after moving to his state, because I never truly realized where he lived before picking up the book.  It's probably because I didn't realize the state of Michigan actually existed before I lived here, too, so it all serves me right.

ANYWAY.  I'd like to share a beautiful passage from The Undertaking with you.  Concerning making funeral arrangements before you die, Lynch writes:

"We are uniformly advised 'not to be a burden to our children.'  This is the other oft-cited bonne raison for making your final arrangements in advance - to spare them the horror and pain of having to do business with someone like me.

But if we are not to be a burden to our children, then to whom?  The government?  The church?  The taxpayers?  Whom?  Were they not a burden to us - our children? And didn't the management of that burden make us feel alive and loved and helpful and capable?"

I love this concept so much, that we would never in a million years choose - or even wish on anyone we dearly loved - the events, responsibilities, and duties that make us truly grow.  So much of what happens internally while parenting feels too universal, too fleeting, and too human to discuss.  I never want to offer up the "hardest job you'll ever love" kind of crap that makes me go blind with boredom when I hear it, but I live most of it daily and totally understand it comes from. 

And maybe that's how it should be.  True intimacies are hard to put into words without cliche or, worse, jarring, socially-transgressive honesty.  They require long friendships where anything goes, or whole novel plots, stories set up and walked through hand in hand with the writer.

Some things are even too sacred for books, which seems to deposit us right at another book I wanted to talk about: Care of the Soul, by Thomas Moore.  This book has circled my life like a coyote for years, or maybe I'm the dog and this book is the innocent I've circled.  Or maybe we've circled together, Ouroboros-like.  Who cares?  The point is, I finally had occasion to wade into its dense waters and I'm happy I did. 

Friends, it is wondrous, a real education. I wonder if one could ever exhaust its gems.  Like a Terrence Malick film, I'm not exactly sure what I touched as I waded through its darkly-lit poetry, its imagery, its mythical tones, its Jungian exploration of dreams, and Moore's painterly expression of ideas.  There's so much in the book that it's not possible, and I don't want, to sum it up, but I can say that it is about examining the particularities that build a soul, which Moore differentiates from a spirit as a sort of earthly, gravitational pull inside - the part of us that likes, say, cookie-dough ice cream - versus the seemingly sophisticated "elevated" parts of us that want to be "spiritual."  Much like in yoga, where attention to the ground beneath you can become a path to greater lightness and forms of levity, Moore contends that care for these particularities of our soul is what leads to healing, and to peace. 

Warning against fundamentalism of all kinds toward the end of the book, he writes:

"I have said that the soul is more interested in particulars than in generalities.  That is true of personal identity as well.  Identifying with a group or a syndrome or a diagnosis is giving in to an abstraction.  Soul provides a strong sense of individuality - personal destiny, special influences and background, and unique stories.  In the face of overwhelming need for both emergency and chronic care, the mental health system labels people schizophrenics, alcoholics, and survivors so that it can bring some order to the chaos of life at home and on the street, but each person has a special story to tell, no matter how many common themes it contains.

Therefore, care of the soul for such a person must begin in the simple telling of her story."

That's a pretty dense passage, and I'm not sure it's the right one to offer you as a sample of what this book feels like to read.  I guess I just appreciate the dignity this man approaches everyone with, the dignity he implores others to see in themselves which he's convinced (and I agree with him) does not come in big important packages but rather in the simple, humbling moments of being alive. 

I watched a robin pull a worm from my neighbor's lawn this week, watched it stretch long and wet between the bird's beak and the ground, pinking in its center as it stretched and then popped toward  the bird.  How many children's books are about this very thing?  So many of them, and I love them all.  Children's books are, in fact, a great example of Moore's theories, studies in this world's ocean of particularities.  Children are so sure in the moment, demanding without anger.  They tend and it is an honor, a purifying education, to walk alongside.

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