Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ashes

Stone’s ashes arrived yesterday via UPS. It seems they need an adult, 21 years or older, to sign for them, and since we were both teaching, the delivery attempt was a failure. So, at eight o’clock at night we went to the ass-end of Van Nuys to stand in line behind a guy complaining he didn’t get his television from QVC to retrieve our dog’s remains. Plain, brown box with a weight of four pounds. A ninety-pound dog reduced to four pounds of ashes.

The house is empty. Here in Los Angeles, the highs are hovering in the eighty degree range with clear, blue skies. It feels like April or May, but it is still the dead of winter. Most nights we sit in front of the television eating our dinner and watching the Winter Olympics.

I have discovered that I have distracted myself from some very difficult times with the Winter Olympics over the years.

In 1994, we had a large earthquake that nearly took down our apartment building, and did in fact close the school where we were teaching for a while. I remember watching the games through aftershocks, listening to the walls heave and crack, while the skiers raced downhill and the figure skaters landed triple Lutz jumps and twirled away in camel spins. The games were in Lillehammer, Norway that year.

Salt Lake City hosted the games in 2002. This came right after my wife’s grandfather passed away in a nursing home and America was still recovering from 9-11. Her grandfather, Miguel, an incredible mechanic who could fix almost anything, tried to teach me how to work on an engine when times were better. I once tightened a bolt on an engine so securely that it took him two days with a hacksaw to cut it off. I was terror with a wrench. There we were on the couch, watching the luge and mourning him.

My mother passed on January 2, 2006. The games that winter were in Turin, Italy. I vaguely remember swirling forms, flames, and figures in mostly white flying down mountains in a faraway country famous for its Burial Shroud of Christ. I do not think I prayed much.

And now it is 2010 in Vancouver. Why did they pick an area with so little snow? Vancouver is a city of rain it seems. Again, we have the stories of the skier with the brother suffering from cerebral palsy, the snowboarder who went to Africa with skateboards, and for a dash of eccentricity, the figure skater who gets death threats for having fur-trimmed costumes. Tragedy, victory, stunning losses and evenings in the glowing half-light of the den. It must be winter again.

Today I gave my students a journal topic to write based on a John Milton poem called, “On His Blindness.” Here is the poem:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”


I asked my students to write about their most valuable possession, and what they would do if they lost it. The possession could be an object, a person, or something more abstract like a memory. I got some great writing from them, especially the seniors who wrote about friendship, family memories, photographs. Other popular subjects were free speech and freedom, baby books, and specific family members like grandparents, brothers and sisters.

Living is about losing things, sometimes piece by piece, taken from us by that decider of mortality: time. Our only recourse is to hold on, cling to the memories, the moments we shared. Religion may comfort us, friends and loved ones may help heal the pain, but in the end, we must simply live on without.

Sometimes, all our best efforts, our love and concern, our desire to hang on to what we care about the most, all boil down to a four-pound box of ashes in a dirty parking lot on a warm winter’s night. We all, as the broadcasters remind us each night on the Olympic telecast, must face our destiny in our search for what is right and true, flying down the hill, the slippery slope of our dreams.

6 comments:

Elisabeth said...

I rote learned the poem you quote here, On His Blindness when I was fifteen years old.

I remember Sister Francesca our fourth form
English teacher suggested we each choose a poem to learn and then recite in front of the class.

I chose the poem at the time because it seemed different somehow from the run of the mill poems the others chose, and I wanted to be different.

Since then I run the poem though regularly in my mind and more often these days I wonder how I'd feel were I to lose my sight.

My maternal grandfather went blind in his seventies, not long after the death of his wife. He lived for some fifteen years thereafter, in the care of a housekeeper in Holland. One of his sons my uncle a Franciscan priest now in his late eighties also went blind from macular degeneration.

I am mindful that this ailment is therefore clearly in my family's blood, in my genes.

My husband is colorblind, but this deficit does not seem nearly so bad as blindness, especially as my husband says, it's all he's ever known. He can respond to colours as magnificent things on the basis of shade and depth but I often wonder what that must be like too.

Thank you again for a beautiful post here. As William suggested in his comment to your last post, there is an authenticity to your writing that renders it a powerful experience in the reading.

Paul L. Martin said...

Thank you for your comment, Elisabeth. Ahh, the memories we have of Catholic schools. I think I value my Catholic school education more than any other part of my education history. My parents put me there because it was a tradition in my family, and I am happy they did. Was it perfect? No, but I learned so much.

I, too, have some experience with macular degeneration. I have already had cataract surgery on both eyes. I was blind in one eye, and on my way to being blind in the other. I am 46 years old, which is a bit early for cataracts. Now my vision is clear. I did have to have some scar tissue removed, but everything is good. The last time I saw my doctor, she told me my eyes looked like they might be prone to macular degeneration. She suggested some vitamins to take regularly, and I took her advice. I have not had any problems for a few years now, so I guess I started preventive measures in time.

Still, when my students wrote about what they would not want to lose, one on my list was eye sight. Like Milton, I would be at a loss without being able to read and write.

Thanks again for your kind words.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Paul. I loved my Catholic education at he time. It's only in retrospect that I have misgivings.

I doubt that I'd have learned On his Blindness in what we call here a 'state' school, though I may be wrong.

Let's hope we both keep our eyesight. You're right it'd be dreadful with out it. However could we continue to blog, among other things?

Anonymous said...

When problems overwhelm us and sadness smothers us, where do we find the will and the courage to continue? Well, the answer may come in the caring voice of a friend, a chance encounter with a book, or from a personal faith. For Janet, help came from her faith but it also came from a squirrel. Shortly after her divorce, Janet lost her father, then she lost her job. She had mounting money problems. But Janet not only survived, she worked her way out of despondency and now she says life is good again. How could this happen? She told me that late one autumn day, when she was at her lowest, she watched a squirrel storing up nuts for the winter. One at a time, he would take them to the nest; and she thought ''If that squirrel can take care of himself with a harsh winter coming on, so can I. Once I broke my problems into small pieces I was able to carrry them just like those acorns; one at a time.''

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pz4dVof3mTc

~im just only me~ said...

I too learned this poem, several times, in Catholic school. (As you say Paul, those years were not perfect, but I wouldn't trade them for anything.) It's my 'go to' poem, the one I never forgot and can still recite every line. As time goes on, it means more and more too me. My maternal grandmother also went blind from MD, and sometimes, when I think about it, it makes me nervous. She read more than any person I know, and more than almost anyone that I have since known. She is the one who taught us to read with a dictionary -- she would never tell us the meanings of words, but would make us look them up. Thanks to her I now hardly ever need the dictionary :) Her loss of sight was devastating to her however, and I keep meaning to illustrate this poem for her and read it to her. It will be painful though, for both of us, and I have avoided it...

Paul L. Martin said...

As a tribute to her, maybe the illustration and reading of Milton's poem is necessary. She obviously gave you a gift that has enriched your life. We must return the gift when called.

My students were just reading an essay from Frederick Douglass about the white woman who taught him to read. I was again reminded what a gift reading is to a young life. It changes our world and makes it accessible. I often wish I could find my own teachers again and thank them for teaching me and encouraging me to read.

Maybe you could set up a time each week to read to her? That might be a way to return what she gave to you.