By eric Le Roy
Content 18+ The street dog I call Molly has recently had another batch of puppies, and nobody seems to know if that's good or not so good. The neighbors have kindly supplied a dog house for the ‘family', and the little dogs are growing. I take them food and so do others.
But just beyond their little field, which is rimmed ineffectually by strings of barbed wire and ‘walled in' by a few vagrant boards –, the road goes up and down with its daily burst and grind of implacable traffic. The pups are growing big and fat enough to be curious about the world, and for them, the bigger world means the road. And the traffic.
Right now, from my office-bedroom window, I can hear them yelping, savoring their fledgling lives that I hope will go on for a while. You never know who is going to get lucky.
As I grow old and sour in many of my opinions, I nevertheless rejoice at these happy sounds of life and the irrepressible optimism that sings therein. And it amazes me to suddenly pick up on a certain point: the unknowing puppies are happy because they are not analyzing it, not asking themselves, “Well, am I happy?” And “Will I be happy tomorrow?”
No, it is for human beings, mired in their great laboratories of thought, to debate the point. Even to ask themselves and others: “Is happiness possible?”
One of those frisky puppies could be dead by evening, but it doesn't matter to him now; he is too busy falling about with his brothers and sisters, thinking of food, still hungering for his momma's pink, protruding teats, most likely.
Why then, amid these moments that should liberate my heart, do I start thinking, sadly and with much apprehension, about death?
And what is it, when I see the unthinking, unblinking happiness of puppies romping, windy trees talking, the sky a brazen February blue, that makes me long, despite all my tormented storms and calculating hours of Intellect, to chuck it all and embrace god?
My main problem, you understand, is twofold: First, I don't believe there IS one. A God, that is. If I really, truly figured that God existed, then sooner or later, I'd probably get round to asking Him (or Whatever – she?? – please) what it was I needed to do at this point to pay the tab, balance the ledger, offer a downpayment – or even a bribe – just to keep my chances afloat of being invited to the Big Party.
The second part of my problem is that I don't LIKE God. There are several reasons for this: (1) I don't like authority; (2) I especially don't like stupid authority; (3) I don't like slinking around in terror of an authority that might not even be there (the ultimate headache), like Kafka's parable “Before the Law”, in which the penitent spends his life in front of the Door of the Law hoping to be admitted, only to be thwarted by a guard who never, ever makes the reason(s) clear, preferring instead to talk in riddles.
All logic tells me that when I die (I am now 74), things will return to the same status as they were in the 14.5 billion years or so (that we know of) before I came into existence. Before 8 May 1949,I didn't care about anything. Now, as a teacher of History (when I am not tutoring English), I know extensively about the people of the past. I am not interested in dates and the names of battles, but of the mentality of the people who lived in the moment, as we all do, except that their moment was, in the case of the Romans, 2000 years ago.
So if I am interested in Caesar, I don't care about his battles, I care about what he might have been thinking as he sauntered stupidly-stupidly to the Roman Senate (against all sensible advice) the afternoon he was assassinated. A couple more days, and he'd have been out of town on another three-year campaign abroad. He knew he had enemies. Potentially deadly ones. So what did he do? He entered the Senate without his bodyguards. How could anybody, especially Caesar, have been so FUCKING stupid? What was he thinking?
Believe it or not, that's the kind of nonsense I walk around thinking about.
But, seriously, I am intensely aware – as seemingly many aren't or just don't care about – that people like Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were not just names, but real people. Imagine yourself on a typical day. How many moods pass through your mind? How many thoughts, half-thoughts, memories, and desires? Do you think it was any different for them? Why, they were as real as those puppies out there! And try to imagine all the boring stuff. A lot of their lives, like ours, was spent just waiting around.
Did they take death seriously? Sure – even more than we do, because it came to people earlier and often more suddenly. Did they worry about it as much? Henry and Anne were profoundly religious, as apparently almost all people – we are told – were in those days. ‘Heresy' brought death by fire. Indeed, religion or no, the higher-ups in the realm were scheming, murderous, vainglorious people. But Henry and Anne were also man and woman, their bodies were aching after a day of hard riding on the Hunt, and they sweated together in bed at night. How often does the casual reader of history think of this: a blubbery, ulcerous, no longer physically potent Henry lumbering down the hall to Anne wondering if he would be able to get a hard-on that night? And Anne, her slim little body waiting in bed for the Great Barge to come wheezing in, wondering the same thing. “NOT A-G-A-I-N!!!” she would be sighing, as fat Hank frantically started jacking and spluttering and praying.
But the evidence is that this sort of thing definitely did happen. And that's the kind of stuff I think about. Screw the “Field of the Cloth of Gold.” What were these real, real, real people like in the mist and the darkness? Did they feel the way I feel? Or were they totally different? Frankly, I doubt they were very different at all, not really. And a bad marriage then was the same as a bad marriage now.
They knew about death, but did they understand it any better than I do? All of the people and all of those kingdoms and all of those empires came and went long before I existed.
How many empires will there be after I cease to be? And what will the lovers be thinking about 5000 years from now. Will there be any?
So here is the problem. The puppies do not worry about death and are happy, even though most of the litter, as I know from life's bitter truths, will not last. I won't last long either, but, instead of just enjoying my remaining days, I keep trying to solve what on this earth can so far not be solved: the dull fact, the mindless thud, the unsaid goodbye of death. Whatever it is.
Now if the sacrificial mob were coming to stone me into pulp, or if the mafia had sent the hitmen to take care of business and put me in a ‘cement overcoat' – and I knew they were on their way – I would be frightened. If I were on the scaffold with a noose around my neck, I would tremble. But since I don't really think I will die today, I am only vaguely unsettled, only slightly vexed, by the impending conundrum of dying and death. I think I'll last long enough at least to finish this blog. (Or drivel, as you might prefer).
So with a grand sigh, like a magnanimous beggar who would be a king and lavish all his dominions with his bounty, I go on about the business of the court, and blot out the rest. The Prince Prospero (Me) is Within. The Red Death is Without.
Alas, in Poe's tale, as in life, the Red Death got in. Death was again the winner.
Yet, when I hear the puppies, I want to be believe that they are not random accidents of nature's episodic couplings, but rather sparks of a divine happiness, as if somewhere, somehow, in a great banquet hall in eternity, the gods drink a toast every time something is born, and cry a little whenever something dies.
Not perfection. Not angels throwing golden frisbees all day outside on frozen gold toppings. I abjure the celestial Olympics where gold medals proliferate and the Red Death has long since been chased away. I decline a hall of glittering metal where the only animals are the golden pigs on spits to be devoured by the Holy Committee, a place where spurts of joy and lapses into gloom do not produce poetry. I would not want to be in a heaven where the maidens of the Lord strolled the avenues and I didn't want to be tempted by them. Or invite them into the misty shadows amid the knowing winks of mandolin players. Heaven without football, what the point? And, damn it, I want a drink. A stiff one. maybe two.
I want dying to mean, not that death has crushed me into insensate oblivion, but that it has something it wants to share with me. I want to share death with Death.
I am not joking. I want to believe that there are essences – or, as Yeats would have it– Presences. It is one thing to be alone in life, or, as the late Robin Wlliams said, what would be even worse: to be among people who make you feel alone. People commit suicide – he did – when life's contrived and deciphered ‘meanings' are more meaningless than ‘meaningless' itself, which is the presumed meaningless of death.
I want enchanting whispers intimating that life is good, that birth and death are but handmaidens to songs woven of indecipherable lyrics, like the windy mutterings of shepherds and the mountain paths of the blind, where meanings and absolutes disappear, and all the spaces in my mind become bright with inexplicable revelation, which is the very heart of light.
All my life, I have been in love with empty spaces, nostalgic for things that never were. I want to see what is really in these ‘empty' spaces. And find waiting those who never were.
I want there to be a god in the wind and in the smell of the roses. Atheist though I command myself to be – based on rooms full of stacks of evidence – I think better of it. I want to see the air beyond the air.
You see, I think (almost in equal parts now) about life and death. My question: in death, what further realms of life might I find, what thoughts? Not a place of rules and judgment I hope. And not a place where, as on earth, my hand is often forced by the powers that be.
So the great fear is not the cancer, the stroke, the bullet, or the arsenic. Maybe Alzheimer's disease comes closest, for it devours the personality, leaving just the shell.
Of all things in death, my supreme terror is that I will not be able to think any more. It will mean that the only true answer, all along, was the Death of all Questions. Therefore, I do not need answers, only the continuing ability to ask.
I dread being in a box of wood or an urn of ashes – and not know. “Damn it – let me out of here !! I am not done asking questions !!!”
I have heard it said that when people have been decapitated, even as their heads roll on the floor or tumble into a basket full of sand, there are still – however briefly – leftover thoughts that were already planted in the brain – kind of swimming around even as the blood pours out from the mangled socket . Not for long. But what might a decapitated head think about with those extra seconds of ‘denouement' ?
Maybe: “Was it something I said?”
Or: “This is your idea of tough love?”
Or: “Get thee hence, cruel thoughts! Be gone! Be Gone!”
Or: “You assholes haven't answered my QUESTION!!!”
I don't know, but as for me, when I am dead, I want to know that I am dead. Like the guy who wakes up in jail and screams “You can't do this to me !!!” The hell they can't, but you don't have to take it lying down. Well, maybe another poor choice of words. I just want to assess my new apartments.
Again, the puppies yip and yap in this Vale of Tears, this Chronicle of Blood we call the ‘civilized' world, That some things seem some seem beyond corruption, well it gives me pause, I'll say that.
So today I listen to the Babble of the Innocents in whom ideas of God, notions of God, I say, awaken in little yelps that come to my window and the further windows of my mind, in every yelp an affirmation of what I do not know, have never known, will probably never know.
But I understand at this moment that they, those puppies and their baby songs, constitute the winds, and seas, and the dawns of my happiness, and that they are the Lilies of the Field.