She told me out of the blue that she adores me. I was there, in a chair, listening; she was standing by the grandfather clock. She didn’t sing it but she said it clearly. This should answer any remaining questions. But Mister Malaise and Madam Miasma are ever on our trail, skulking in woodlands and meadows, waylaying the vulnerable, requiring us to drink discouragement and despair, and they got me a few days ago, two weeks after mitral valve replacement, walking tall in Transitional Care, transitioning back to normal life when I was hit (in the time it takes to tell it) by abject weakness, dizziness, nausea, and had to be locked up in hospital and tubes put in my arms for blood and antibiotics, and then released in a weakened semi-invalid state. It’s a lousy feeling. I look out at Minneapolis and imagine it’s Odessa, which it is not. I worry the Swiss banks will fail. Water mains will burst. Bacon will be banned, leaving us with vegan substitute
.The body wants to heal and it has felicitous intuitions how to go about doing it but meanwhile I ache and shuffle around like an old grampa and hike the hallways and work at maintaining a cheerful outlook (false). My wife is a worrier and when we promised to love and honor each other 27 years ago, diarrhea and vomiting weren’t mentioned in detail, so I walk carefully. Continue reading Garrison Keillor – Autumn is Coming: Prepare to Be Bold→
I’m at the keyboard, just finished what feels like a pretty good blog post. Pressing Return to upload it, I hear a strange noise on my left. That’s my foggy side, a fuzzy mist since the 2019 stroke. So I wheel around, to face the bookshelves against the wall with the good eye.
He’s standing there, in a solid charcoal gray robe, the piercing dark eyes, not even the hint of a smile, with a short black cape, topped by a black hood pulled tight around his face, but no long scythe in his hand.
I recognize him.
“The Seventh Seal,” I say. “I’m honored. I was afraid they’d send some murderous termagant from Agatha Christie.”
Does his non-smile twist a bit? I can’t tell, and try again. “Can I just finish this piece I’ve got here?” I nod at the screen. “It won’t take long. The working title is “War and Peace: The Sequel. I’m already on page four.“
The eye-roll is slight, but makes plain he’s heard this, and all the other stalling-for-time ad libs, likely hundreds of times. No, thousands.
I give up. “Okay,,” I say, “let me just do this limerick.” I type fast, despite shaky fingers:
When the Reaper comes, I won’t get sappy,
I’ll tell him, “Ok, make it snappy.”
And If he shows when I’m writing,
I won’t go down fighting,
Your best guess: I’ll be sorta happy.
Now my eyelids are heavy. I think I’ll just put my head down on the keyboard, facing the back window, with the shade pulled down, sunlight slanting through the blinds, as I’ve occasionally done before, and rest them a bit.
There’s a slight rustle behind me, and the last I remember is the touch of a finger on my shoulder . . . .
Now, a few hours later, a more realistic scene: The Fair Wendy peeps in at dusk, and finds me slid off the chair, crumpled on the floor. She shrieks, but knows what to do: checks for breath and a pulse, then grabs her phone and dials the long-agreed magic number: 911.
Soon an EMT driver barges in, no siren, but red and blue lights flashing in the hall behind him and across the front of the house. He touches nothing until a cop arrives.
The officer checks me and the room: no signs of forced entry, struggle, blood, gunshot, stabbing or choke wounds. No empty pill bottle, or handwritten farewell note among the many visible papers.
Looks like natural causes. An everyday, no-drama demise: the local TV van slides past our neighborhood, seeking a video-friendly scene, maybe with crime scene tape, better a wrecked car that has a bullet-pocked windshield.
Soon I’m zipped up and out of there. Wendy is left to deal with the shock. And in an hour or two, what’s left of me is on the brink of Gehenna, or rather Greensboro, like a COSTCO chicken facing the Rotisserie of No Return.
“Seventeen hundred,” said Fred. He works for a sizable cremation/funeral service in central North Carolina.
That’s degrees, not dollars. (This is seriously hot: the typical kitchen oven tops out at about 500.) But $1700 is not a lot to pay for a cremation funeral. The rungs on the guilt- and grief-driven spending ladder into the Valley of the Shadow go both ways, deeper than your pockets, and higher than your credit limit,
Now at my other end, $1700 is also a price one can beat. And I was under orders to beat it. The Fair Wendy, who is younger and expected to outlast me, told me flat out, “Chuck, It’s your jobto call the funeral place. I don’t want to have to deal with that stuff when you’re dead.”
I could relate. She has agreed to handle my estate, which will be peanuts money-wise, but complicated by my being a writer, with copyrights and such. That’s enough.
Besides, we’re Quakers, with this complex notion we call Simplicity. It was once very stern about death —as a saying goes, “No pomp in any circumstance.”
I’ve visited the Quaker burial ground on Nantucket Island, which for more than a century was a thriving, prosperous Quaker center. The burial ground is a big, uneven grassy expanse, mown but not landscaped, within a low weathered gray rail fence. It’s reliably said to be seeded with the bones of several thousand Friends, rich and poor, devout and nominal.
There’s only a scattering of markers in it, maybe several dozen, planted by renegade relatives who defied the local elders to know where some of their kin were placed. It’s not a gloomy spot, but thought-provoking: a silent Quaker homily on the true human equality, all ultimately alike under the skin, and under the ground.
So I told Fred plainly that I wanted the low end, and had googled “economical cremation” to find it, and him. Although behind him one wall was lined with shelves of colorful burial urns that ran as much as $300, he didn’t skip a beat or apply any pressure.
The most basic package, he said, includes picking me up, and doing the paperwork for an official state-stamped certificate — in North Carolina, you can stop breathing whenever you like, but you’re not officially dead til the state in its un-elizabethan majesty issues you a properly stamped certificate saying so, and that will likely take weeks, and cost $10 a copy, please.)
In the meantime, however, you do get your Ticket to Ride the Rotisserie of No Return (and you won’t care), where the 1700 degrees deliver a quick and permanent weight loss program guaranteed to leave only 4 to 8 pounds of ground bone and ash to be scooped out and poured into a clear plastic bag, dropped into that fliptop black container, snug in that sturdy cardboard box, ready for pickup in a couple days. (Hmmm. Only a day or two, with actually just a handful of hours on the Rotisserie? Maybe that 1700 degree part is not really Hell, but only Purgatory. Well, that’s okay— I was raised Catholic, and shortening our time in Purgatory was a serious thing then.)
But ”What?” I said to Fred. “Just four to eight pounds at the end? But I’m more than two hundred and—“
Fred cut me off. “Fat all goes up the chimney,” he said. “We do cases of people at 300, 400 pounds, even more, no problem.”
I eyeballed the black plastic box with what looked like a flip-top lid, noting that it was on a shelf opposite the gaudy pricey urns. I didn’t mind its plainness. But, all (that’s left of) me will fit in that little space?
Well, so it goes. Yet there’s one more step: what to do with the ashes? Many people keep their fancy urns on display, a family heirloom. Hmmmm. Others have themselves scattered; that skips the expenses of an actual burial, which involves dealing with cemeteries and grave markers or headstones. Fred emphasized he was not in those businesses, but knew them well and had many useful money-saving tips to offer (above all, crank up your search engine and shop smart.) As for me, I’d like for the box to be planted, and maybe have a somewhat simple marker, being a somewhat renegade Quaker. (Not too renegade, I hope there will also be a party, and will be sorry to miss it.
But that’s for another day. Now, I told Fred, I was ready to deal. The actual transaction for this, what is called a “pre-need” arrangement, was that I wrote the $795 check to an insurance company, which will actually pay Fred’s crematorium when the time comes.
But what if I hang around for some years? (After all, I mostly feel okay now, with no terminal diagnoses hanging over me, and was doing this mainly so I could quit nagging myself about it.)
The insurance company was way ahead of me here. The policy came with an ALL-CAPS “No Inflation” guarantee, rather a timely fillip. If Fred’s crematorium emporium charges twice as much when the call comes for me, the insurance company will cover the difference.
So: in one day I beat the funeral racket, stopped inflation, and eased the mind of The Fair Wendy to boot.
And had some interesting dreams. When I jerked awake, the keyboard rubbing against my cheek, the first thing that came to mind was another limerick:
When I go, let me go in simplicity.
With oppression and war less complicity.
So the man in all black
On the day he comes back
May find in me a certain felicity.
‘A truce with the trees’: Rebecca Solnit on the wonders of a 300-year old violin
Made with all-renewable materials, this violin from 1721 reflects a time of magnificent culture – a global gathering from before the climate crisis
Rebecca Solnit. — Thu 7 Jul 2022
For the last 50 years, David Harrington, the founder and artistic director of San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet, has been playing what he calls “pretty athletic music” on a violin made in 1721. I’ve heard him play all kinds of compositions on it, from the galloping notes of Orange Blossom Special to the minimalism of Terry Riley and even the occasional bit of Bach. The instrument made by Carlo Giuseppe Testore in Milan has survived three centuries, providing music for countless audiences, and can be heard on more than 60 Kronos albums.
When I first learned the age of the instrument I was filled with wonder that a delicate piece of craftsmanship could endure for centuries, that something so small and light could do so much, that an instrument made in the 18th century could have so much to say in the 21st. It felt like a messenger from the past and an emblem of the possible, a relic and a promise.
This violin is from before. Before James Watt made the steam engine a voracious, ubiquitous device devouring coal and wood and then oil, driving mills, looms, pumps, then locomotive and steamboat engines. Before we began gouging out the Earth so frantically to feed those steam engines and then those internal combustion engines. Before we dug out so much of the carbon that plants had so beautifully sequestered deep in the Earth eons ago. Before human impact exploded into a destructive force with the power to change the acidity of the oceans and the content of the atmosphere. Continue reading Big Tip for Long Life: Fiddle Around, Folks→
As well as tears there’s cake and laughter: remembering a well-lived life is a very human affair
Last week, I went to the most fabulous party, and it happened to be a funeral. My best friend’s mum, Janet, died – a clever, funny, brilliant woman who was remembered for the way she danced around kitchens, and smelled of perfume and fags, and trucked across the world with priceless artworks, and brought up two of the most extraordinary girls in London. But while the loss was incredibly sad, her funeral was an absolute blast.
My friends and I dissected it on the way home in the car. Why did it make us feel so… good? The journey was long, the roads were blocked, so we had plenty of time to discuss it, to think about the way their family had performed this quiet trick, taken a sad song and made it better. They’d started by employing progressive funeral directors who gave them a copy of the book they’d written, We All Know How This Ends, a guide to death and the lessons it teaches us about life. They said talking about death and dying can be life-enhancing; they never used the words “passed away”, always “died”. And they insisted the funeral could be anything the family wanted it to be.
There was nothing wild about the afternoon, nothing fired from a cannon or dropped from the sky, instead just this sense of gentle shared joy, passed from hand to hand. Beside the coffin, Janet’s daughter did, not a speech, really, it didn’t feel like a speech, it felt like a series of happy memories told beautifully and everyone laughed.
A colleague talked about Janet’s work, her husband talked about the places they’d lived and the family they’d built, their shared love of drunkenness. There was a poem which read like a love letter, and there was mingling outside in the sun. At a café down the road a jazz trio played while we ate some sandwiches and drank some wine, and the place was packed with Janet’s many friends, some old, some young, some she’d known from work, some from the pub, everyone chatting and chuckling, and holding each other’s arms with that perfect griefy care.
While the loss of my best friend’s mum was incredibly sad, her funeral was an absolute blast
I’m sorry to go on about the pandemic again when I know everybody’s doing so well at trying to forget all about it, but God, every now and then the facts of it prick freshly at me: the way so many had to mourn alone, or die on FaceTime, or attend funerals from home and the distance of a shaky camera, or sit very far apart in ventilated rooms while coffins slid away. It is unbearable, really, to remember.