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Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Thoughts on Death – Literary, Botanical, and In Summer

Leelanau Township cemetery


In Books


I was writing something completely different the other morning when out of the blue came this thought: I believe there are many more murders and suicides per capita in literature than in life. Doubtless part of what gave rise to this was having finished reading Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy. Women as well as men, O’Brien makes clear, can lead lives of quiet desperation. 


The per capita notion always puts me in mind of a graduate school friend from Winnipeg, who told me of a friend of hers, a fellow Canadian, who always insisted on putting Canadian statistics in per capita figures so his country could come out near the top. It does make sense, though. Ten of anything in a population of a million isn’t much, but ten in a population of twenty-five is significant. 


What makes soap operas seem unreal, I realized back in my teen years, was the small population involved. Affairs, unplanned pregnancies, marriages, divorces, murders, and incidents of injury causing amnesia (a popular soap tragedy) all happen in real life but spread out much more thinly among the population of a community. In the soap world, the cast of characters is limited, and so every dramatic event possible will eventually befall a character who is on the show for many years. (Numbers by themselves are only numbers.) In a work of fiction, though, while the number of characters is limited, we usually have a sense of those characters as placed in a world as large as our own, usually in fact having a great semblance to the world we know, and so what happens to the characters in their lives seems more realistic than what happens to characters in a television soap.


Yet for every Anna Karenina or Caithleen Brady, for every Tom Buchanan or John Proctor, how many men and women go on with their lives despite unhappy love affairs or marriages (either with their spouses or their lovers), and how many divorced parents remain involved in the lives of children by former spouses, often with the blessings and cooperation of those same former spouses? I’m not really asking for numbers, only pointing out that heartbreak leads to a tragic end much less often in real life than it does in books, which makes me wonder what writers and readers are looking for in literature. Something more (or at least other) than simple reality, clearly. More structure, more logic, more of a moral lesson? Clear consequences?


I told the Artist that I would not have wanted either of the country girls in Edna O’Brien’s books for a close friend. To me the emptiness of their lives was worse than anything they did or anything that happened to them, and I hope those I have loved went to their eternal rest with a greater sense of peace and satisfaction in the lives they lived.

Black locust flowers

In the Garden


Years ago I was telling a fellow gardener about dead-heading flowers in my garden, and he advised me that it were well to leave room for death among the flowers. “My garden isn’t big enough,” I objected. Flowers do bloom and fade and fall, of course, as leaves bud and grow and die in their turn, and all that is part of the natural year. But a perennial shrub is not meant to die during the long days of June! Its flowers are meant to fade and drop petals, not turn brown, and the leaves should stay green and moist, not shrivel up and fall off! I am stricken to the heart by this development. 

Sad, dying viburnum!

Sad closeup

Talk about heartbreak! This viburnum was my garden pride and joy, the most beautiful plant I had -- flowering in spring, leafy green all summer, with brilliant fall color. Then this past week its lovely flowers began to shrivel into ugly brown frozen-looking chunks, and the leaves began to wilt and fold up and dry out and die, and I’m pretty sure – believe me, I make the diagnosis reluctantly, not looking for drama – that the culprit is verticillium wilt, a horrible soil-borne fungus that strikes all manner of plants. And once it strikes, it is incurable. So the viburnum may not be the only plant to die for me this summer, and that makes me grateful, in a sighing, could-be-worse kind of way, that I didn’t buy more perennials, tempted as I always am by the idea of beauties that “come back” every spring and don’t need to be replanted.  

Northport corner

In Summer


It is June already! The longest day is coming fast upon us (June 20), after which date the hours of daylight decrease toward December. Oh, no, no, no! Do not turn around so quickly, summer!


Of all the seasons of every passing year, for me summer holds the most and thickest layers of memories with old friends. So many little things remind me of those who are gone – but I cannot begin naming those absent ones, as the list is longer and longer each year. I can accept death in the abstract: it is normal, it is part of the natural cycle (like those fading blossoms). When it comes to individuals, however, it seems unfair


“I’m tired of _____ being dead!” I complained impatiently to the Artist one day. “She’s been dead long enough, and I want her back here!” 


In fact, I would settle for having her somewhere on earth again, among the living, and taking comfort in that, even if we never talked on the phone again and she never wrote me another letter. But no, that time will never return. I know we were fortunate to have had the friendship for the years we were both alive. Still….


So strange, how infinitesimal tiny human lives are against the great sweep of history, let alone against the unfathomable backdrop of geologic time. How insignificant, all of us in that perspective. And yet how vivid, how intense, life is for each of us in our brief, immediate days. The brilliancy of buttercups in a patch of sunlight, sudden cry of redwing blackbird, soft kiss of evening breeze, taste of juicy strawberry. Heartache and joy. Oh, the joy of my little dog, rolling on his back in the grass like a horse in the desert dust, scratching an itch with sybaritic abandon. As my friend in New South Wales says, I wouldn’t be dead for quids. -- Except that one day, of course, I will be, so all the more reason to take in as much of life and love and beauty as possible in the here and now.

Calm morning on the bay


Jeanie Furlan said...

Yes, tragedy, heart break and death might be more common in literature, and I know in my case, I am attracted to see how the people (and writers) deal with those blows in their lives. I read them maybe to prepare myself. Or to learn how others got through their travails. Your dear friend who has passed away makes me think of old relatives I would like to see now and ask them how they got through some bad times, or ask their advice on some things. We are quite a small and tiny ‘blip’ on the screen of life. I would like to tell you that in your work, your writing, your photography, your comments on books, you give to others, you open yourself to others. All those things you offer us are admirable gifts for us on the receiving side.

P. J. Grath said...

Oh, Jeanie, thank you so much! I do have some very good news from the plant world this morning: although my viburnum at home is in bad shape, the one I planted years ago in my garden on the corner of Mill and Nagonaba streets is flourishing. The varietal name is 'Chenault,' and the woman who has her store there now in the old bark-covered building was happy to learn the name of the plant for a dog-walker who has been asking day after day! The shrub, I told Shawn, has beautiful fall color, as well as spring flowers -- something to anticipate when the seasons turn again.

And yes, there are so many things I would love to ask my grandmother!!!