I have just finished two books and the stories from both are spinning round my head. I’m hoping a bit of writing will help the dizziness to pass, but enjoying the overwhelming-ness of it at the same time.
The books have made me wonder about the end of my life: Will death be a panicky full stop to everything I hold dear? Or will my road to the end be paved with such grace that I don’t fear that final jolt?
The rest is jungle and other stories by Mario Benedetti
This is a collection of stories by a writer from Uruguay. The stories were published over 50 years (1949-1999). There is a lot of political and social upheaval caught up in this period (torture, corruption, imprisonment, exile), and this upheaval forms a sketchy, but ominous backdrop to the stories. Many take surprising, abrupt twists after a person encounters someone (a visitor, a voice on the phone, a man on the street, an Alter Ego, a ghost) and this encounter forces the person to confront who they have become, or who they once were.
In Death a man’s doctor advises him that “It’s advisable that you prepare for the worst.” The man confronts his own death, for the first time, head on. Knowledge of his impending death brings the man intense fear, as well as a strange exhilaration. It brings a sudden, harrowing appreciation that some of the routine, everyday things pegged throughout his life are actually finite and extraordinary- not perfect but still precious. He takes a kind of stocktake of his life and death:
Without his children, without his wife, without his lover. But also without the sun, this sun; without those thin clouds, emaciated, in accord with the country; without the routine (blessed, loved, sweet, aphrodisiac, sheltered, perfect) of Cashier Desk No. 3 and it’s audits and lengthy searches for discrepancies that were always found; without his thorough reading of the newspaper in the cafe, next to the large window facing the Andes; without his exchange of jokes with the waiter; without the episodes of pleasant giddiness which suddenly occur when looking at the sea and especially when looking at the sky; without these hurried people, happy because they don’t know anything about themselves, who hasten to lie to themselves, to secure their armchair in eternity or to talk about the captivating heroism of the others; without the balm-like repose; without the books as intoxication; without the alcohol as an expedient; without sleep as death; without life as a vigil; simply without life.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The Reverend John Ames is given similar news by his doctor. His response is to write a long letter to his young son. This letter picks up the many threads in the Reverend’s life, such as his relationship with his father and grandfather, who were also preachers. Rev Ames is by no means perfect, but the beauty of this book lies in the perspective of a man who has walked in the presence of the Lord all his days, so that his whole life becomes a sort of prayer. The everyday is baptized by awe and wonder:
…There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glisteining and very wet. On some impulse, plain exhuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water cam pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
This awe and wonder can be found even in dark and lonely times:
It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light… But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?
Short story or long letter?
No matter what length of time I have left to live, I would like my life to be a long letter home rather than a short story. I do not wish to have the truth of my life flash before me at the last instant. I hope instead that I will be able to walk a slow and reflective life in the presence of the Lord, and that He will let me rest and dream even before the wagon hits the final jolt.