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Friday, October 18, 2013

Comfort in Many Places

Hilltop trees jump to life in morning light.

Can you identify the trees?
Books come to me in many ways, and just yesterday I received one in the mail from acquaintances in Traverse City, lovely people I don’t know very well but met back when I had my bookstore on Union Street for a couple of years. The book they sent me is called Ink Trails: Michigan’s Famous and Forgotten Writers, by brothers Dave and Jack Dempsey. Among the famous are my beloved Bruce Catton and my equally beloved Liberty Hyde Bailey. Among the forgotten I read about Maritta Wolff and resolve to read some of her books. It was a comfort to receive this unexpected gift in the mail when I was feeling sad.

There are poets, too, in the book. One of them is Jane Kenyon, included by virtue of time she spent in Ann Arbor at, of course, the University of Michigan. And in her brief poem, “Notes from the Other Side,” I find further comfort:
I divested myself of despair and fear when I came here. 
 Now there is no more catching one’s own eye in the mirror, 
 there are no more bad books, no plastic, no insurance premiums, and of course, 
no illness. Contrition does not exist, nor gnashing 
 of teeth. No one howls as the first clod of earth hits the casket.  
The poor we no longer have with us. Our calm hearts strike only the hour, 
 and God, as promised, proves to be mercy clothed in light.
Our friend’s graveside service was held this morning at the little country cemetery on Horn Road, in the neighborhood (there is no town) unofficially known as “East Leland,” under a cloudy sky but with bright fall colors and loving hearts all around. Along with traditional Jewish prayers, there was Woody Guthrie music and this poem, "The Peace of Wild Things," by Wendell Berry:
When despair for the world grows in me  
and I wake in the night at the least sound  
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,  
I go and lie down where the wood drake  
rests in his beauty on the water,  
and the great heron feeds.  
I come into the peace of wild things  
who do not tax their lives with forethought  
of grief. I come into the presence of still water  
and I feel above me the day-blind stars 
waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Good poetry comforts without misrepresenting either life or the world. A poem about death, Kenyon’s “Notes from the Other Side” is, in fact, a litany of some of the large troubles and small, troubling anxieties the poet faced toward the end of her life. The “first clod of earth [that] hits the casket,” hard as it is to see and hear, is the ushering out of all those woes. Wendell Berry seeks peace and beauty in nature to counter his middle-of-the-night despair and anxiety, knowing – don’t we all realize it as we read this poem? – that he will have to go again and again to the wild things for comfort. I love his use of the personal pronoun ‘who’ at the beginning of the line explaining why the wild things are so peaceful.

In times of grief, it is often the small, unexpected phrase or image that clutches at the heart. At the request of one of the daughters, as mourners were taking turns dropping shovels-full of dirt on the lowered casket, the rabbi began to sing “This Land is Our Land,” and, quietly, many of the mourners joined in, smiling. I was taken by surprise by the line about the “No Trespassing” sign. It jolted me because of a sudden, vivid association with the last walk I’d taken with my friend. We were on one of my favorite back roads, walking by the roadside as it runs along private posted land, my dog on her leash, and my friend suggested we walk out into the field. “I don’t think anyone would mind, do you?” she asked me with a smile, eyes twinkling, adding, “under the circumstances.” The circumstances were her imminent death and what turned out to be our last country walk together, but yes, the memory is comforting.

Our dog, my constant companion, is always a comfort to David and me.

Sarah is so patient! And much cuter than my poor drawing of her.

Last hawkweed?

As it was for my departed friend and is for Wendell Berry, nature is a comfort for me, too. Colors are bright even under cloudy skies, and there is color in small dabs as well as in panoramic scenes. Not only trees but also leaves of asters and goldenrod and forsythia give color to warm us before winter's cold arrives.

Surprise fall color radiates from neighbor's forsythia.
A close look shows goldenrod foliage turning, too.
Even without color, lines are fascinating.
I find peace and comfort in my drawing class, in the practice of drawing, and in homework for the class, even when the assignment is to draw an old shoe. The instructor selected a shoe for each student. We had to take the shoe home Wednesday night to finish the drawings and will return with drawings and shoes next week.

Athletic shoe (my drawing, but not my shoe)

Adored husband, dear family and friends, familiar and lovely surroundings we never take for granted – another day of love and beauty, the value of these blessings is only underscored by difficulty and loss.


Karen M said...

I walked the beach at the edge of a thunderstorm yesterday and felt our friend's presence. She is now a part of the wild things.

P. J. Grath said...

You are so right, Karen. This morning Sarah and I walked the country road where we walked with our friend not that long ago. She was always aware of beauty in its many guises. I felt her there, too.

Karen Casebeer said...

Pamela...Thank you so much for your blog posts about our recently passed friend. I've found comfort in them and also hearing of your struggle to manage the complexities of grief. The remembering with joy. The sadness of loss. Karen C.

P. J. Grath said...

Karen, it was good to see both of you Karens, along with so many other friends (including the third Karen from here in the village) at the graveside service yesterday morning. We will gather again on Monday afternoon to celebrate our friend's life, and I know there will be laughter mixed with the tears. Hugs!

Kathy said...

Glad you were given the gift of blessings and comfort in so many places.

Dawn said...

That was a perfect poem, so comforting and so right. It's also good to think about the other side having no worries, I hope your Monday gathering was also healing.

P. J. Grath said...

Kathy and Dawn, thank you for visiting. Yesterday's celebration of Ilene's life was full of friends and stories and overflowing with love. We are all still wrenched by the loss, however. It will be only three weeks tomorrow since my last walk with her. So hard to believe she can be gone -- but she will live on in our hearts forever.