Sunday, July 29, 2012

On the proximity of death

This is a November picture. I remembered it (because of the lovely light) and went to find it, to look at the steeple of the church that was damaged by last week's fatal lightning strike. Because yesterday, looking at the steeple through the - cheap, kit-lense - telephoto, I saw that one entire turret is missing from the tower, not just a few stones. And not only that, but when it came down that entire NW corner's support structure was ripped out with it, like pulling out a vein from the surrounding muscle. The damage is extraordinary.

I walked past the church on Friday on my way to buy some new herbs on Court Street, but left the scene quickly. It was buzzing with television trucks and satellite dishes and newspeople in polished suits and bright ties and fake faces and it felt awful. Like flies buzzing an accident scene. Big stones lay on the sidewalk. A piece of the scaffolding you see above lay bent over the wrought iron fence on the ground. It was only in a news photo later that I saw that most of the stone had plunged directly through the roof of the church, making an an enourmous, Blitz-like gash in it.

We walk past here quite often, and every time we do I stop and search the small front garden next door and in front of Christ Church for a brown Abyssinian cat I saw there, once, who was very friendly and came out and played with us on the sidewalk. I always hope to see it again. I love Abyssinian cats. We used to have one - Minky. How odd that the man walking there that prematurely black night had no idea that these were the last steps of the last walk he would ever take. And perhaps he was scared of the storm, but stuck in it anyway, on his way home, nearby.  He was even conscious when a neighbour reached him. He spoke, and said he thought he was OK. 

My father once heard a crash outside his office (we say "chambers") in Cape Town. He looked out and saw a man, a colleague, lying on a roof far below. As he lay there on his back he reached into his shirt pocket and took out his glasses and put them on his face, a calm reflex. And then he lay back and died. He had jumped.

I know it's ghoulish. 

But I can't get over the fact, ever,  that we just sit eating our dinner with no idea of what is happening a couple of blocks away. Why don't we feel it? I know that that is life. That right now people might be dying or suffering, or hurting (we live near a hospital and a nursing home), and that if we knew all of it all of the time we would go mad. And if we spend a lot of time thinking about it we go mad, anyway. But surely if we felt it more we would have fewer conflicts, and no war, because we can imagine the unimaginable and cannot live with the sensation. 

Instead we go on dropping bombs in absentia. Flying killer drones from comfortable chairs in Colorado. Or Syracuse

We'll be back to flowers and food tomorrow. Because they are my antidote.


  1. You have a big heart, Marie, and you care about people - both the individuals and the group. That makes war unimaginable and cruelty - even fate - difficult. But you bring such light with you to the rest of us.

    Good post.

  2. I think that it is essential to balance the good things in life by bearing witness to misfortune, catastrophe, even the evil deeds of which man is capable. Otherwise, what does goodness mean? I don't understand my friends who refuse to pay attention to "the news", because it is such an emotional drain and "what can you do about it?". It is what makes us human. And an essay like this is like an old-fashioned Christian novena (my memory of those years grows faint now, but...). It is to notice, to euologize a stranger, to care. However you view it, it is a kind of prayer.

  3. Often here in the Midwest, I hear of a few brick breaking off a building in the Fox Valley or downtown Chicago and fall from their great height unto unsuspecting walkers below. In your post of the other day, I imagined just such a thing, a few brick, a walker-by, the wrong place and wrong time, and very sad. Now with your added posts, it feels like the very heavens opened up and threw lightening bolts down on the head of the probably terrified man who lost his life in one blinding and deafening crash of nature's mighty wrath when an entire turret came crashing down! I imagine it would have seemed like the entire world slipped sideways and he was caught at ground zero.

  4. Your question makes me think of this quote from Pema Chödrön:
    “There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly. Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.”


    I think your flowers and strawberries are doing their job.

  5. Thank you for sharing your experience. Please know that your vision and insight are succinct, refreshing, and awe inspiring and I am very happy that I stumbled upon 66 square.

  6. Deeply moving post, Marie. You have shared this tragic story with incredible sensitivity. The minutes and hours of life are incredibly precious.

  7. Dear Marie,

    The awareness that someone - a stranger to you - lost his life, is what is most precious here.
    We should be aware of others.
    Too many of us equate people to things, objects.
    He lived a life. He passed away.
    It is always good (and the greatest tribute to his existence) to pause at that point.

    Jy het, lyk vir my, 'n goue hart.


  8. ditto on the sentiments already expressed but especially the ones that janet posted

  9. It is important to be mindful of ourselves and of those around us (by 'those' I mean people, animals, birds, fish, insects, trees, plants, environments...) wherever we may be, and be aware that everything we do is connected and affects others.
    Human beings are, in spite of our best efforts to make it appear otherwise, simply another species, a part of Nature, struggling to survive. It's easy to forget this fact when we have modern life and all it's trappings.
    All life, however near or far, great or small, is precious.
    Great post Marie.
    Touching, heartfelt responses also x

  10. Thank you for writing this. It probably wasn't easy doing so...

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  12. Marie - I found your blog through the NYT post and have been devouring it ever since, going back to the beginning. I'm also a gardener and just moved here from California...and we must live around the corner from you as the things you talk about I'm familiar with in the 9 square blocks of Brooklyn I happen to know right now. We're also within steps of a hospital and a nursing home.
    I had the same reaction as you did in hearing about the church odd to have life extinguished that close to us in such a sudden manner and not know it. Although NYC seems like a big city, I am enjoying the small town nature of Brooklyn so far. It seems unfair that the local community of Cobble Hill can't in some way provide solace to a family that's hurting due to loss in its midst.
    Anyways...great blog. You're inspiring me to think about how to continue gardening in an environment so different than the Northern California hills.

  13. Thank you for so many thoughtful and kind responses. I think these things often and rarely express them. Flowers keep them at bay.

  14. Oh, and Russ - thank you. We must be neighbours. And there is a lot you can grow here. But yes, a big change from California. No jasmine. No little lemon trees. I long for one. If you are reading from the beginning of the blog please forgive the layout of the posts - when Blogger underwent template changes old posts were thrown for a loop in terms of layout. There are just too many for me to realign systematically.


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