Today, Monday, March 20th, marks the official start of spring. The red-winged blackbirds arrived two weeks ago, trilling cheekily just before the last (we hope) huge snowstorm briefly silenced them. Warming days brighten the promise of green beginnings after the long white winter.
In the face of new life, it seems contrary to raise the topic of death. And yet, even as shoots of grass poke up through the thawing earth, I am reminded that everything in nature, everything in our time here, encompasses both life and death. Over the past 12 months, my immediate family has witnessed the two ends of the spectrum. We rejoiced at the births of two infants, Alice and Felix, and wept at the death of Christina, our 93-year old mother, just a few months after the deaths of her two sisters, also in their ‘90s.
According to Stephen Jenkinson, profiled in the remarkable film Griefwalker, we love deeply precisely because we know that what we love will one day die. Jenkinson urges us to ‘embrace our death: don’t just accept it – that’s too passive.’ In other words, live each day with ceremony and celebration, with the conscious awareness that our living and our dying are all of a piece.
In this first winter following my mother’s death, I found myself pausing often to look – to really take in – the contours of snow against the hillside, the texture of bark on the maples, and even the dry and curled coppery leaves clinging to the beech saplings. They exhorted me, “Pay attention! Drink in our realness, while we – and you – are still here.”
Fortunately, getting comfortable with death doesn’t always have to be Serious and Intense. That’s what I love about David Budbill’s poem, The First Green of Spring. In it, he alludes to death – sautéed sprigs of marsh marigolds and cowslip “melting/ to a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life.” The next line, “harbinger of things to come” suggests that death might reveal itself to be even more marvellous than life. Budbill pays homage to e.e. cummings’ paean, i thank You God for most this amazing day and specifically the lines “(i who have died am alive again today/ and this is the sun’s birthday’ with his own adaptation, “we and the world/ are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday.” Celebration rippling and riffing from one poet to the other. The last stanza of Budbill’s poem meshes both the inevitable fact of our eventual death with the pure delight of fully relishing this spring feast.
My mother loved sitting down to dinner with her family, eating heartily amid laughter and love. This is a good poem to speak, as I bring her to mind and heart.
The First Green of Spring
Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,
this sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting
to a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,
harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching
on this message from the dawn which says we and the world
are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday. And
even though we know we are getting older, we are dying, we
will never be young again, we also know we’re still right here
now, today, and my, oh my! don’t these greens taste good.