Posts Tagged With: literature

The Bustle in a House

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, –

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

Emily Dickinson

What do you expect from a retired professor of English whose specialty is American literature?

Seriously, though, this poem has been running through my head for two days now, pushing itself into my consciousness at the very time I’m creating my own bustle in the house here.

Dickinson has always been one of my favorite poets, though I know she’s not everyone’s taste.  I find, though, that her poems have such variety and contemplate such life issues that mirror the conflicting ideas and even confusion that I have felt at many times.  Some poems when read together indicate that she had two opposing ideas and wasn’t necessarily sure of things, even of belief.

But this one, just now, is what has insistently made itself part of my life since Monday.

Truly I have been (as has Kay) part of the bustle that is necessary at such times.  Even as we were just realizing he had died, Kay and I had to be active.  We had to call hospice, and that started the wheels in motion.  First the nurse arrived to officially deal with his death; she cleaned him.  I called Charles, who was here in a few minutes.  I called Billie, who dressed and came over.  About ten minutes later, her son Joe showed up too.  Mind you, this is at 2 in the morning!  We were not alone; we were surrounded by friends.  And we found ourselves telling stories to the nurse, laughing.  When the funeral staff came in to pick up Dad, one of the guys was one of our cousins.  Small town life again, comforting in ways you don’t really anticipate as you are growing up.

Then he was gone, and they were gone, and we were by ourselves.  But we couldn’t sleep — too much to do.  The bustle had begun.  With a 9 a.m. appointment at the funeral home to make arrangements, we had to locate necessary items — clothing, photographs, insurance papers. And then I started texting cousins and close friends.  And started getting responses back, even at 4 or 4:30 in the morning.

Kay and I got through with the funeral director by 11:30 or so, and stopped in Egan for a little while before heading to Lake Charles.  I needed to check for something at my house, though I couldn’t find it.  We had coffee with a friend of mine.  We also had pampering time — I treated us to a spa pedicure and manicure.  I figured we needed to feel better, and this was the perfect treat.  We were back in Egan by 7, and found the hospital bed and other equipment was gone (thanks to Charles, who let the people in to pick it up).  We got something to eat, and  I made some phone calls.  Then we crashed.

Today, Wednesday, we spent here at the house — my friend Patty came from Lake Charles.  She and Kay cleaned up and washed clothes.  I made more phone calls, worked on funeral arrangements, went through paperwork, went to Crowley to the clerk of courts to get a copy of the living trust that Dad had set up and registered.  Then it was on to the funeral home.  Then I picked up delicious shrimp poboys and came home.  It was a bit after 2 by the time we finished lunch, and then went back to work.  By 5, I loaded my two dogs into pet carriers, and Patty took them back to my house in Lake Charles for me.  If we have visitors drop in tomorrow, I won’t have to worry about the pups.

The bathrooms are clean.  Clothes are washed.  My room is neater than it’s been in weeks.  I managed to get the rest of the house in good shape, but really didn’t bother getting my room as organized — I was just too tired, and there were more important things to do.  Now, though, it is much better.  Thanks, Patty!

And tonight, Charles came over for supper.  He’d cooked some jalapeño pinto beans in the slow cooker.  I grilled some sweet peppers and bell peppers and onions.  Kay cooked some fajita meat and made queso.  We had a great meal.  The strawberry daiquiris were also quite tasty.

Now I am relaxing.  Soon I will head to bed and hope to get some sleep.  Tomorrow is another day of bustling, both in the house and elsewhere.  Friends may drop in.  I need to get a haircut.  And Kay and I need to be at the funeral home at 4; close friends and the two of us will be there until 5, when the visitation begins.  That runs until 9.  Then Kay and I and Cindy (one of her oldest friends) come back to the house for the night.

Friday is travel day:  Kay and I will go to Lake Charles for a few hours and then head to San Augustine to the family farm.  My cousin Mike and his wife will drive down to the farm as will, bringing his mother, my dad’s sister, and they’ll get there and open up the house before we arrive.  They’ll also bring supper.  What a treat not to have to worry about that!  We just get to relax and be together and laugh and remember Dad and how many years we’ve gotten together.  We can hear more Aunt Mildred and Dad stories.

Saturday will be the funeral service and burial, followed by lunch and then it’s back to the farm with family and friends coming by.  If we’re still functional, Kay and I will come back to Egan that evening.

I know that the bustle in the house isn’t really over even then.  There’s still so much to do.  There are papers I need to locate, insurance policies to find, business to take care of.  And then there are still the closets to be emptied and books to be sorted and packed.  But that can be at a leisurely pace, certainly compared to the rather rapid pace of this week.

That, though, is when the emotional letdown will come, I think.  The rushing about and the busy pace have kept us going.  Once that pace stops, once we have time to sit and think and remember, the realities will come back into full focus.  No longer having to be social directors of sorts, we will be in our own individual and collective times, when grief will come to visit more often.

One of the great joys of my life has been teaching literature — and teaching literature has provided me with such profound consolation in difficult times — as when Mother died, or Phil died.  Teaching literature means exploring the human condition and the emotions that make us human — and one of the most profound experiences we humans share is the death of loved ones (indeed, loss in the broadest of terms as well).  Through the necessity of teaching major works of literature, I found myself so personally connected and deeply comforted.  I also found that students came to see how literature speaks to us, beyond the differences of time and culture, and touches us, speaks to us, connects to us beyond time and place.

When I taught Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, or the poetry of Edward Taylor, I found not only deeply religious Puritans expressing their faith, but humans who dealt with the loss of parents or children.  Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden, came from his deep grief over the loss of his brother, and represented not Thoreau’s becoming a hermit, but his personal search for what Emerson had called for in “Self Reliance.” Thoreau wondered what was essential to life, and in the process of that two years, two months, and two days at Walden Pond he moved through grief to reconciliation — he moved back to town in spring, surely not accidental — but the time of renewal.  Over and over, I found human voices and human grief, working through to acceptance and reconciliation.

Particularly for me now, Bradstreet’s  poems about her father, Thomas Dudley, are pertinent.  In “To Her Father With Some Verses,” Bradstreet says:

“Most truly honoured, and as truly dear,
If worth in me or ought I do appear,
Who can of right better demand the same
Than may your worthy self from whom it came?
The principal might yield a greater sum,
Yet handled ill, amounts but to this crumb;
My stock’s so small I know not how to pay,
My bond remains in force unto this day;
Yet for part payment take this simple mite,
Where nothing’s to be had, kings loose their right.
Such is my debt I may not say forgive,
But as I can, I’ll pay it while I live;
Such is my bond, none can discharge but I,
Yet paying is not paid until I die.”
She wrote other poems in honor of her father, but this one, I find, is  simplest, most direct, and clear.  And I’ve always thought it was on target, but never more so than now that Dad is gone.  If I have learned anything, become anything, if there is anything worthy in me, I owe it to him, and to Mother.  They modeled the values, not just mouthed them.  Bradstreet says that she owes her father such a debt that she can pay and pay and never pay that debt off.  This is the way I feel too.  My debt is never paid off.  I pay it off daily, in pieces, in my own life, in how I live, and in living the principles and values, not just professing them.
Dickinson wrote about loss of many types, and about grief.  Many of my students, frankly, thought she was weird or crazy or just obsessed with death.  Yet her world was so different from ours in that illnesses often led to death, and medicine wasn’t exactly always a help.  Further, death was something that happened at home, not in some sterile hospital room.  And funerals happened at home, not in some special place.
Perhaps too there is some truth to the idea that there is a therapeutic element in writing.  Certainly if that was true for Dickinson, it in no way diminishes the power of her art .
Even with so many of her poems about death and loss and grief, Dickinson could write these lines, which I see as a counterpoint:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.”

And Walt Whitman, her contemporary, wrote of death in surprisingly joyful, hopeful ways.  (He was, after all, an American Romantic).
As he noted:
“this is thy hour o soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson
thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the
themes thou lovest best,
night, sleep, death and the stars.”
It has been my privilege to make a living out of my great passion for literature.  That I got paid to teach what I love has always been an amazing thing to me.
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that lines of literature, even entire poems, pop into my thoughts at any given moment.  They spoke to me as a teacher, but more importantly, they spoke to me as a person.  I pick up literature for fun, not just for a job.
Thanks, Emily, and Walt, and Anne, and any number of other writers, for illuminating my life.  Thanks for giving a voice to my pain, for reminding me that grief has a cycle that can bring me to reconciliation, for showing me the joy that is also in life, even in the midst of grief.
As Whitman asserts in “Song of Myself,”
“All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
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A Bookworm’s Confession

The carpet’s in, most of the inside renovations are completed, and today I got to sleep late.  No one was coming to work, it was dialysis day, and I planned on enjoying a day of relative leisure.

Even without setting an alarm, I woke up about 7.  Unlike most days, though, I could simply turn back over, close my eyes, and go back to dreamland.  It was heavenly.

Even when I woke up, about 8:30, I didn’t really have to get up, so I opened up the iPad Kindle app and started reading.  One thing I usually manage to find time for is books.

My love of books goes back to childhood.  My mother always told people she potty-trained me thanks to bribery.  She knew she was onto something — she promised me Little Golden Books and lace-trimmed panties.  I was hooked on books.  Dad will tell you that the problem became not convincing me to go to the bathroom, but getting out of it.  I have a vivid memory of my little potty chair and a rather tall stack of Little Golden Books.

In the summer before sixth grade I discovered the parish library would let me check out 10 books a week.  I ran through books that summer like a drowning person seeks air.  The joy of roaming the stacks expanded beyond the small school library I had access to in Egan.  That was the summer that I discovered science fiction, the great science fiction of writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Andre Norton.  This was 1962, remember, so much of the science fiction of the 50s and early 60s had post-apocalyptic settings that reverberated after Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  Other topics included space travel and exploration.  I had a new love, thanks to that summer’s discovery.  I still enjoy re-reading Heinlein and the others.

By seventh grade, I had exhausted the library at Egan, which actually included a high-school library since Egan had a high school until the summer after my first-grade year.  My reading was voracious — anything that caught my eye got checked out.

Beyond the world available through library cards, I began accumulating my own library. Every Christmas my wish list included books.  Depending on my interests and obsessions, the titles changed from year to year.  Sometimes it was Nancy Drew books; other times, Trixie Belden.  Then in 9th grade English we read Romeo and Juliet, and that Christmas I asked for three of the four volumes of Shakespeare’s plays that the Sears catalog listed.  I guess the history plays only grabbed me in college, because that’s the volume I skipped then.

Somewhere along the line, I started buying my own books.  For college classes, for graduate school classes, for teaching . . . for any reason at all.  I didn’t really need much of an excuse.  I don’t think I ever really got rid of any, either.  Some were still here in Egan while others moved with me from dorm to apartment to apartment to house. Books followed me everywhere, but every time I moved there were more of them, and those boxes were heavy to lift and carry.

Now I find myself trying to minimize and downsize.   What is hardest for me to get rid of?  Books.  They’re everywhere in my house in Lake Charles, in every room.  I have double rows of paperbacks; some of these are so old that they cost $1.25.  I have two 8’x4′ bookcases that my brother built for me.  They’re packed.  I have an old library bookcase that is nearly 8 feet tall and about 3 feet wide; it easily holds double-deep shelves.  There are three other smaller bookcases, also full.  And there are boxes of books I’ve got selected to get ride of.  And that’s only in one room, the back “library.”  There’s a small bookcase in my bedroom.  There are three bookcases in the living room.  I have professional books and books for hobbies.  I have fun books, “junk” books.  What I face now:  the desire to simplify my life, to downsize, and to give some of the books away or sell some.

That goes against nearly 60 years of habitual collecting, but I am leaning toward paring down — at least as much as I can.

Even here in Egan I have books.  My childhood books are here, and they’re staying.

Books are lovely — I love to walk into a bookstore with old books.  It’s hard to resist, but I try.  I am trying not to live like a hoarder, though for me the rooms would be filled with books, not sacks of garbage or newspapers.

The advent of e-books now allows me the freedom of buying books without taking up shelf space or floor space.  I like that.  Nothing really replaces a real book, but the ease of traveling with one device and dozens of books, that can hold even more books — that is attractive, believe me.

I’m one of those people who goes to sleep with a book in the bed.  Who’s kidding?  I used to go to sleep with half the bed filled with books.  Now, though, it’s the iPad.  One device but many, many books.

Tomorrow, one of my tasks is to take books out of boxes and put them back on shelves.  These are not my books, mind you — they’re my dad’s.  My love of books is a family one, you see.  Everyone in our family is a reader.

Many times you’ll see us in after-holiday-meal stupor, sitting or lying around, napping.  But each of us also usually has a book with us as we nap.  It’s also pretty common to see us gathered in the same room, silent.  We’re all awake, but each of us has a book.

Books were how I discovered the world beyond Egan, beyond Louisiana, beyond Texas.  They’re how I discovered the pyramids of Egypt and the mythologies of Greece and Scandinavia.  They’re how I learned history.

Every day, I read.  Some days I may only read a few pages, usually at least a few chapters.  Sometimes I simply read for hours, even all night, if the book pulls me in so much that I can’t stop until I”m done.

Just this week, I’ve read a new book on Hawaii and one on the real-life inspiration for the Downton Abbey series.  That doesn’t count the new murder mystery by Susan Wittig Albert.  And it’s only Wednesday.

Tomorrow the contractor will be back — if it’s dry enough for him to work under the house.  That means I’ll get up about 7 a.m.  I can work on putting books up.

But in the meantime, it’s time to grab the iPad and open the Kindle app . . . and throw myself into another book.

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