But before I launch into today's winding disquisition, I must either excuse myself for not having written my obligatory entry on Saturday, or claim an exemption.
The excuse is... too much to do, too little time to do it all, and besides, I forgot how to make the oven turn on and broil things. This, combined with two trays of raw chicken, will distract even the most stalwart blogeur, I suspect. With the chicken promised as part of an Easter buffet meal hosted by wonderful friends, I felt sure that, bright as these folks are, they would recognize raw chicken right away. So, struggle with the oven, or write a blog post? Sit at the computer, or chop plum tomatoes for my doctored salsa (also promised for this munificent spread everyone enjoyed perhaps a little more than was good for us, I suspect)? Type away madly, or iron the shirts I would need for my several public appearances at church? As I doggedly whittled away at the Saturday to-do list, I kept counting on what I hoped would be at least an hour, after the Easter Vigil, when I could fulfill my self-imposed promise -- one-entry-per-day-during-Lent. Even though, technically, by the time John and I got to our hotel room (we stayed overnight in New Brunswick -- why waste another hour, driving back and forth to South Orange, when we both had to be back at church on Sunday morning, six hours after we left on Saturday night?) it was nearly midnight, and I barely had the strength to fall onto the bed.
The exemption -- if Sundays don't count, and I posted on Sundays, then I reserve the right to shift one of those entries to the final day of Lent. So call it legalistic. If you don't like it, sue me.
But now, I'm afraid I must dive into the topic of the day, which is, of course, death.
Happy Easter. We had wonderful services, last night and this morning. Much ritual drama, much haunting and festive music. Rousing hymns, sublime anthems, splendid instrumental performances. Four choirs sang at the 10:30 service this morning. There was much kissing and hugging, though there weren't as many resplendent ladies' hats as I had hoped to see. To make up for this visual disappointment, at least in part, there was a red-headed Scotsman in full kilted regalia, with his family in variations of plaid.
But I confess -- which I've already done, but when is one ever done confessing? -- I felt distanced from everything around me at church, as though there were a film of thin, transparent, utterly impermeable material, stretched between me and everyone and everything else around me. Or, maybe it was the other way around -- there I sat, too fleshy to abide myself, and confronting a 'reality' that seemed no more substantial than the shell of an egg. All the ritual, all the vestments, all the colored light streaming through the stained glass windows -- no more than a brittle crust over a central emptiness I was engaged in trying to deny.
As the hymns were sung, I thought about death. As the readings were being delivered, I thought about death. As the Gospel was read, I thought about... You get the picture.
And then, because I'm not particularly good at paying attention during sermons, as the priest stood at the pulpit, I wandered off on this train of thought: where were my German ancestors, 2000 years ago? Were they brutal tribesmen, wrapped in pelts and worshiping war gods? Which of my ancestors first become a Christian? Was it by decree, a la Charlemagne? Or was it a matter of personal choice and spiritual conviction?
Did I have ancestors who were heretics (in which case, I might at least have an excuse. When in doubt, blame genetics) -- Albigensians, or Gnostics, Arianists or Pelagianists? Or all of the above, if possible? When did my forebears turn to Protestantism? How did I inherit the role of a Protestant?
And I thought about that 2000 years again -- what that means, in terms of generations. Counting by the traditional 30 years per, this means 66 generations, from the time of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and today. (This doesn't really seem like enough, but there you are) I could have a party for 66 people in my back yard, if I could get the oven to work. And all of them, but one, would be dead, at least as of today. And even that one is a little worse for the wear.
So, I'm sitting in the side chapel, in my red choir robe, doing these little bits of mental mathematics, as the sermon goes on, and we've sung about the death of Death, and I have to confess -- yet again -- that I felt like the stupidest person on earth. Or at least the stupidest person in that crowded church. Because, for all this talking and singing...
In 1985, a theater friend of mine, John Henry Nichols, was walking down Broadway, on a fairly nice day, on his way to an audition. I'd run into him just the week before, by chance, in a music store in mid-town, and he told me of his plans to move to London in a few months, to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. I told him how exciting that sounded, while inside I shriveled a little, comparing the clarity of his plans with my current situation: working as a part-time file clerk in an investment bank in the Exxon Building, of all places. (The Valdez spill was still resonating) I mean, I'd moved to New York to pursue an acting career, and the closest I'd come was sitting in a cedar closet in a fourth-floor walk-up in Hoboken New Jersey, tape recording books about Malta.
But John had the looks, the stature, the vision, the determination and the commitment to become a remarkable performer. Think of a blond Colin Farrell, with bright blue eyes. And I'm hazarding a guess, but I'd bet this coalescing plan was on his mind, as he walked down Broadway, just as a two-by-four fell from an open fifteenth-floor construction site, rocketed down and destroyed John Henry Nichols' beautiful blond head, as though it had been a melon.
Suddenly, the question of whether or not I needed health insurance seemed unimportant.
An acquaintance from my acting days in upstate New York was driving from her job in the city, to the country home she was meticulously refurbishing. Her name was Carol. She lived down the dirt road from where our acting troupe lived, and she would come over to share a communal dinner from time to time. She was a nurse. And while she was driving behind a truck carrying a load of steel beams, one of these great cold things came loose, slid backwards, and shot through her windshield.
My aunt Marie -- the artistic one, who had a piano in her house, and had made a mosaic coffee table top by herself, and had taken her Girl Scout troop to Paris on the proceeds of cookie sales (!) -- died of liver cancer when she was 57. My family being what it is, I learsned this after her illness had been diagnosed, after she had begun to fail, after she had died, after the funeral, and after she had already been buried.
When I went to visit my glass-making friend Mark that last time, I wasn't prepared for how swollen and distorted he was. He'd been diagnosed as incurable, with cancer raging through his body. Rather than sitting in his apartment to talk, we walked down the street to a Chinese restaurant, where he told me, over and over, how guilty he felt, how sure he was that he had brought this on himself somehow. 'What did I do wrong?', he said he kept asking himself.
Mostly though, he said, he grieved at leaving his son behind, to grow up without a father. I ate my food as though I hadn't had a meal in a month -- I shoved food into my face as though my eating would either cure him, or protect me. When I had gulped down the last noodle, we shuffled back to Mark's place, where it took him nearly ten minutes to walk back up the two flights of stairs. Then we sat in his living room, eating some of the ginger snap cookies I'd brought him from Philadelphia. Ginger being good for you, you know.
His home health care worker arrived, and I had to leave. I hugged Mark, and told him -- meaning it -- that I wished I could take some of his illness on myself. He said, 'Oh no, you don't.' Which one of us was right, I wonder?
Within two weeks, he was dead.
And on, and on. Still, I hear, annually, as I'm surrounded by lilies and chocolate, about the destruction of death, and I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. At every funeral I've attended, where the casket is rolled down the aisle, and people come by to touch it, there is a dead, dead body, right there, sealed in a cold metal box. Seems pretty real to me. Pretty unconquered, to me.
So, having maundered, where am I? I'm waiting, I suppose, to be the first of that string of 66 generations to enjoy the promised release from death that I've been hearing so much about. But of course, this is a stupid thing to hope for -- just as hoping to be rescued from that orphanage was a stupid thing. But I suppose I'm living proof (currently) that sheer stupidity doesn't preclude the eruption of hope.
On the other hand, death being the inescapable reality we all know it to be, how do I separate out the parts of Christianity in which I do firmly believe -- issues of service, of responsible action in the world, of the value of a communal expression of basic hunger, among others -- from the parts that, to me, seem preposterous? Is there, perhaps, some... discipline? meditation? practice? -- that might stand even the slenderest chance of helping me quiet the Death Flu grief that seems to be with me now, non-stop (yes, even when I'm laughing, or making a rude joke), everywhere? If I could, I would study in a Tibetan monastery, where fledgling monks do their contemplation in the charnel yards. Tibet being mostly made of stone, our style of burial is impossible, so their dead are left on high wooden platforms, for carrion birds to come and strip the flesh away. That might be an inoculation of sorts. The travel visa could be a problem.
Which brings me right back again, to the same central issue, especially prominent at Easter-tide.
One Resurrection. One? No, no, no. I want thousands. Thousands! They can live in Wyoming.
© 2012 Walter Zimmerman