Sunday, September 28, 2008

Assignable Portions


I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air--
Between the Heaves of Storm--

The Eyes around--had wrung them dry--
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset--when the King
Be witnessed--in the Room--

I willed my Keepsakes--Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable--and then it was
There interposed a Fly--

With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz--
Between the light--and me--
And then the Windows failed--and then
I could not see to see--

Emily Dickinson, 1862

Every now and again I like to pause and take stock of my life and I like to play a morbid little game while doing it: I make a mental will. It's not so much about my possessions--I have little of value and I like it that way. It's more about my friends and loved ones, and what it is that they cherish about me. The Nephews will get Clyde and Beans, the stuffed horse and dog they play with whenever they come to my house, my best friend the box of old high school hall notes I have saved for twenty years, my knitting friend will suddenly have a much larger stash.

I picture an improbable scene where all my friends and family gather to go through my stuff and pick out the one thing they want to have to remember me by. It won't happen, but it's a comforting thought nonetheless.

A few years back, my single, childless uncle died suddenly, and I went to Oklahoma with my aunt and uncle to go through his things and bring what we could back to the family. My uncle had accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, and there was a lot to go through in a short time. There were a few things that were obvious things to save: a bundle of family letters dating back to the Civil War, an old autoharp in the family for generations, photos. But there was also a lot of stuff that had significance only to my uncle, and that got piled up in a heap to be hauled off. As we surveyed the piles of built up detritus from my uncle's life, we marvelled at what he kept. And my uncle pulled out a small scrap of paper and showed it to me, fondly chuckling at the idea of a 60 year old man still holding on to this:

(click on it to see more detail)

It was a Treasure Map my uncle had drawn. The inscription in green pencil on the bottom, possibly added later, gives a phone number in Milwaukee that dates the drawing to his high school days or earlier.

When I saw the map, chills ran down my spine. I knew this map. I knew the island, with its hidden valley accessible only through the labyrinth of tunnels or the dangerous cave entrance. I knew it because the book it appeared in was one of my favorite childhood books: The Island Stallion by Walter Farley, author of The Black Stallion series. The premise of the book--one of a series about the island and its horses--is that a teen-aged boy gets shipwrecked on the island, discovers the tunnels leading to the secret inner valley, and finding treasure left behind by Spanish conquistadors as well as a herd descended from the horses they left behind. I had read all those books over and over, and imagined myself trying to find my way through the tunnels, and when I finally did, the glorious discovery of a green valley populated with horses. The imaginary island lingered in my memory as a hope of secrets revealed, treasure found, paradise gained. And it must have lingered in my uncle's mind, too, for him to have kept this carefully copied map through the years and through countless moves. I carefully tucked it away, and brought it back home. I knew I had found my inheritance from my uncle.

When I showed my mother the map, she was drawn into a series of reminiscences which revealed a side of my uncle that I had not known much about. He was always into treasure hunting and maps, she said, and went on to share some childhood memories. I took the stories in and added them to my own memories of him. He was a somewhat hard man to know. When I was a child, he was not always at the family gatherings and when he was, he tended to drink too much. He didn't have a lot of interest in children, and didn't have much to say to me. But as I grew older, our relationship deepened. He was good-humored, intelligent and well-informed on many topics. He loved nature and animals and wouldn't kill an insect in the house, but instead would capture it and release it outdoors. He had a sly sense of humor and enjoyed getting away with bullshitting me if he could. He seemed to enjoy it when I called him on it. When he died, he left a hole in the family.

I think about how odd it is, both of us remembering that book and never knowing it was important to each other's childhoods. I think about the moment of serendipity when my other uncle plucked that one piece of paper that would mean so much to me off that huge pile of other papers. I wonder what scraps of my life will mean something to my loved ones when I am gone.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


One Hour To Madness And Joy

One hour to madness and joy!
O furious! O confine me not!
(What is this that frees me so in storms?
What do my shouts amid lightnings and raging winds mean?)

O to drink the mystic deliria deeper than any other man!
O savage and tender achings!
(I bequeath them to you, my children,
I tell them to you, for reasons, O bridegroom and bride.)

O to be yielded to you, whoever you are, and you to be yielded to me, in defiance of the world!
O to return to Paradise! O bashful and feminine!
O to draw you to me—to plant on you for the first time the lips of a determin’d man!

O the puzzle—the thrice-tied knot—the deep and dark pool! O all untied and illumin’d!
O to speed where there is space enough and air enough at last!
O to be absolv’d from previous ties and conventions—I from mine, and you from yours!
O to find a new unthought-of nonchalance with the best of nature!
O to have the gag remov’d from one’s mouth!
O to have the feeling, to-day or any day, I am sufficient as I am!

O something unprov’d! something in a trance!
O madness amorous! O trembling!
O to escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!
To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!
To court destruction with taunts—with invitations!
To ascend—to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!
To rise thither with my inebriate Soul!
To be lost, if it must be so!
To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom!
With one brief hour of madness and joy.

Walt Whitman, 1860

I am not so sure one can feed the remainder of life with just one brief hour of madness and joy. I think it much more likely that, having climbed those heights once, one's instinct is to want to climb them again and again. And if those heights are forbidden besides, well, so much more the pull to them. I imagine it would be easy to fall into a trap that way, always looking for that same thrill and never finding it. And in the constant search, I also imagine it would be easy to overlook a different kind of joy. Maybe less madness to it, but that doesn't mean it can't be just as fulfilling. There is much to be said for the slowly accumulating joy of tiny little moments of everyday kindnesses and shared laughter and comforts of familiarity.

The truth is that, as we move through life and find each other, we gather more and more ties and lose more and more freedom. Sometimes it happens slowly, almost imperceptibly, other times we choose the ties deliberately and publicly. And while there is intoxication in the thought of breaking free from all those ties at times, I imagine regret would follow such an action. And surely that regret would, in time, overshadow the joy of the moment.

All that aside, reading this poem, don't you just want to jump off that cliff anyway?