Nearly three weeks ago, I heard a solitary red-winged blackbird. Then silence for many days, even though the weather was unusually balmy. That solo bird must have been a scout. Late last week, John and I strolled down the road to the swamp and came across a throng of new arrivals. Their breezy trills and shop-bell alerts filled the air. The males swayed on cat tails, guarding their territory while their wives flew about in search of suitable nest material.
Every year, spring gladdens my heart with the magic of returning birds and greening fields. This year, however, the enjoyment holds a bittersweet edge. In the last two weeks, alongside budding trees, death has come calling. One of our villagers died after contracting COVID; a friend’s mother suddenly died; and another friend lost her niece to suicide. During the same period, a dear friend was hospitalized for pneumonia, and we trembled in fear that she might not pull through. She did.
Wise teachers of the spiritual nature of dying and death counsel us to befriend death. Intellectually, it’s easy enough to accept the inevitability of our eventual death. But ‘befriend’ it, not just as an idea, but with one’s heart? As the heart welcomes the softening earth, the tiny, tender crocuses, the creek cascading down the hill?
Truth be told, I’m not yet at the friendship stage with death. But I am learning the reality of what my dear friend Jan calls the paradox of wonder and grief: you can’t have one without the other. These days, lines from a poem by Li-Young Lee call to me, allowing the paradox to knit with my bones and grow into a strange and ultimate friendship.
…my soul is a bride enthralled by an unmet groom,
or else the groom wholly spoken for, blue
in ardor, happy in eternal waiting.
I heard her sing and knew
I would never hear the true
name of each thing
until I realized the abysmal
ground of all things. Her singing
touched that ground in me.
Now, dying of my life, everything is made new.
Now, my life is not my life. I have no life
apart from all of life.
And my death is not my death,
but a pillow beneath my head, a rock
propping the window open
to admit the jasmine.
I heard her sing,
and I’m no longer afraid.
Now that I know what she knows, I hope
never to forget
how giant the gone
and immaculate the going.
How much I’ve already lost.
How much I go on losing.
How much I’ve lived
all one blue. O, how much
I go on living.
~ from “Spoken For” by Li-Young Lee