We woke to a wintery skiff this morning. It was 5:15 when Heathcliff needed to go outside and relieve himself. Better than his 3 am wakeups, but that’s the season he’s in as an old dog with sugared muzzle like the snow-dusted mountains here at Vanaprastha.
Heathcliff still warns us of “intruders” but rises from his nest bed with effort and limps and stumbles often these days. Sometimes he’s not enthusiastic about eating his kibble. When Cato puppy runs into the woods, Heathcliff giddy-ups then walks or stands at forest edge and watches.
And yet, on these cold winter days, Heathcliff’s memories of joy linger.
Last week, I read Rachel Kushner’s personal essay, “The Hard Crowd” published in the January 18 issue of The New Yorker. The essay’s first line referenced Bob Dylan’s “It’s alright, Ma, I’m only bleeding.” Dylan’s famous existential song captured his anger at what he perceived as America’s hypocrisy, commercialism, consumerism, and culture of war. Very mid-sixties—my early teen years and before Kushner was born.
In her second paragraph, Kushner wrote about Jimmy Carter quoting a line from Dylan’s song during his 1976 Democratic National Convention acceptance speech: “…he not busy being born is busy dying.” For Carter, a lifelong devout Christian, this declaration of faith, which supersedes politics, meant being born again in Christ instead of dying. But in the summer of ’76, Kushner was seven, I was twenty-four, and neither of us understood what Carter was talking about.
I wasn’t sure where Kushner was going with her essay but read on:
You are busy being born for the whole long ascent of life, and then, after some apex, you are busy dying—that’s the logic of the line, as I interpret it. Here, “being born” is an open and existential category: you are gaining experience, living intensely in the present, before the period of life when you are finished with the new. This “dying” doesn’t have to be negative. It, too, is an open and existential category of being: the age when the bulk of your experience, the succession of days lived in the present, is mostly over. You turn reflective, interior; you examine and sort and tally. You reach a point where so much is behind you, but it continues to exist somewhere, as memory and absence at once, as images you’ll never see again. None of it matters; it is gone. But it all matters; it lingers.
What followed was Kushner’s description of the streets of San Francisco in the eighties, her attempt to make sense of herself, a child of hippie parents and a teenager, growing up around Haight-Ashbury. The Hard Crowd. As a young adult, she left San Francisco and, unlike many she knew back then, lived to tell her tale.
Thoughts of Kushner’s opening paragraphs lingered on that cold winter day last week. I sensed her “throat clearing” was an effort to frame her essay and probe inward, to go a layer deeper in the onion, as Keith says. Perhaps she wasn’t ready to die to the old reality of herself in order to be born into a deeper understanding.
Those who’ve embraced that experience know: the deeper the layer, the truer the reality.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother since she passed away eleven months ago. What lingers for me are the memories that lingered for her as dementia robbed her of most of the present and some of the past.
Mother spoke about her childhood, family and dear friends. She told stories about neighborhood picnics and book club and going back to teaching after raising her children. “The best thing I ever did,” she said. My take-away: the reality we cultivate in life lingers, and truth is all that matters.
Heathcliff’s joy. Mother’s love. God’s peace.
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