and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree
Last Tuesday was Mardi Gras – the last day of eating fatly before the Lenton fast. It’s an important day in the calender here, as it is in all Catholic countries – the children dress up and in many towns there is a carnival atmosphere with costumes and fire-works aplenty as well as a healthy dollop of unhealthy gluttony. Mercredi des Cendres (Ash Wednesday) follows and it too is well marked. People attend Church and the Priest marks foreheads or forearms with crosses of blessed ash that come from burning the palms left over from Palm Sunday. The ashen marks should be left to fade naturally rather than washed off. The bells in all the churches ring peels and peels and peels all day long. This is a reminder that they are being ‘cleaned’ in readiness for their journey to Rome to be blessed. The bells (yup every single bell in France) fly on Good Friday night taking with them the grief of those mourning the death of Christ and the following night these Cloche Volant will fly back laden with treats which they will drop into the houses of the good people. No bells will be heard during this period because, quite simply, they are not there and the joy that the people feel when Les Cloches de Paques sing out on Easter morning will prompt many to embrace in the streets. Now before you go where Two Brains went – this is myth … the stuff that I taught my children is a story that is so old that no-one can remember if its true or not. But I hope the cloche in the village remembers that I am partial to a chocolate egg if there happens to be one spare on the night.
It’s fair to say that I am not a Catholic (though as the mother of four daughters, I do know what it is to be riddled with Catholic guilt) and that my relationship to Easter began and ended with the Bunny. Ash Wednesday of course I had a passing nod to, but in reality it was just the day that followed Pancake Day. This year, though, it felt significant. If you will indulge me, I can explain.
In France, schools are divided into three zones (A, B and C). Here in Auvergne we are Zone A. Winter and Spring holidays are staggered so that ski and beach resorts are not all descended on at once. Here in Zone A we were last this time which meant that school broke up on March 1st and will return on March 17th. The significance of this for me is that the Ecole Maternelle, above which I live is silent. The 12 little children whose voices normally provide the sound-track to my day from 9-12 and 1:30-4.30 are absent.
The silence coincided with my husband going away for a month. This is quite normal for us but normal does not necessarily equal easy. So the week started a little melancholy. Mardi Gras passed me by except to note that there was a wake in the Salle de Fete, which you may recall is at the bottom of my drive, within ‘our’ park. About 10 cars bore the mourners. Carrefour supermarket bags bore the food. Black-clad adults chaperoned children-off-school trying visibly to behave with decorum. There was that huddled feeling that tends to accompany a funeral. Mardi-Gras was no-where to be seen. Later that evening, on the phone to Two Brains, he tells me that his assistant (you will meet) had the news that his wife’s only surviving uncle, a fit, healthy man of no great age, had succumbed to a hospital born infection in Florida and they would be flying out to attend the funeral once arrangements had been made. The heaviness was not abating.
On Wednesday, sitting exactly and precisely where I am now, up popped a message from one of my oldest friends. She apologised for being out of touch and explained that her beloved older sister had died quite suddenly on February 3rd. Anna was an actress, vibrant, warm and loving. Her loss, is felt acutely by many and the pain of her sister is absolutely raw and tangible. I had been reading a blog I follow called ‘Wife After Death’ and a post on a different blog about the death of a dog called Dobby – doing that thing that I do when I am sad … making myself even sadder. It rather felt as though death was surrounding my every move and I sat feeling stunned and numb as though I was the bereaved. Which of course I was not.
I messaged back to my friend. And I have written a proper letter because I feel from experience how important those things that you can physically touch as you read, re-read, you can put away in a special place or rip up into tiny pieces and fling in despair and anger, then drench yourself in Catholic guilt and remorse because you haven’t maintained the decorum that the children at the wake mustered. How important something physcial and tangible can be.
So as the sun gathered strength this week (we are basking in an early Spring with temperatures hovering around the 70 and holding our collective breath in the hope that this is not just a flash in the winter pan) I decided that the only decent thing to do is to LIVE this life. To relish this place and to be considerate of those who are grieving by being positive and glad of everything that I have. So I am. Instead of skulking at home I am out and smiling. Because I can, you see. And one day I won’t be able to. That’s the only sure fire certainty in this life. That one day it will end. And given that life is a lottery, I don’t actually have much, if any, control over when that moment will come. And for me, it seems that the most appropriate way of respecting the dead is to be content. So I am.
PS: The title is a line from the very beautiful ‘Only Death’ sometimes called ‘Nothing but Death’ by Pablo Neruda here translated by Robert Bly:
There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.
And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain.
Sometimes I see alone
coffins under sail,
embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair,
with bakers who are as white as angels,
and pensive young girls married to notary publics,
caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead,
the river of dark purple,
moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death,
filled by the sound of death which is silence.
Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.
I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.
But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom,
lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies,
death is inside the broom,
the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses,
it is the needle of death looking for thread.
Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses,
in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out:
it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets,
and the beds go sailing toward a port
where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.
My Dear Fiona – well said, lets try perhaps to echo the dreams, not of the Catholic faith, but its almost polar opposite, the Methodists’ who are encouraged to do: ‘as much good as they can, to as many people as they can, in whatever way they can, wherever they can, and whenever they can.’ Immortality is only for the word, the painting, the deed, the music, but not the being.
And equally well said you too, dear Carl. I love that philosophy and how delightful the world would be if people actually adopted it – simple enough for any man to live by!
Sometimes it’s difficult to be positive. I am a great one for seeing the glass half empty. But then something happens to make you reassess things – like your friend’s sister’s death. Then you start to focus on what you have got, rather than what you haven’t. In my case, this lasts for a few days before the glass is half empty again, but I think I’m improving with age in that respect.
We are, of course, what we are – and neither way is better, I think. I am the eternal optimist which can be read as naive – that full glass begs to be knocked over with monotonous regularity!
Reblogged this on Half Baked In Paradise and commented:
I read this to my husband this morning. He had read it and heard it many times before. I read it to him this morning because last night he had news of the death of a great man. A man who was his dear friend and a man who it can truly be said lived a worthwhile life, leaves a great legacy and above all things was a decent man of integrity. Patrick Thaddeus will be remembered with pride and joy by many, mourned with aching hearts by those that love him and his death reduced my cool and considered husband to cascades of forlorn, muted globular tears. Death does that. There follows what I wrote just over two years ago of the way that perhaps life can warm us when struggling in the cold shadow of death close-by.
Wise and warm words. Live while you can, do good where you can, and hope it goes on as long as you want it to.
Thank you. That is all we can do. But like most, sometimes I need a reminder 🙂
Don’t we all. Just remember, there is NO pie in the sky when you die, until scientifically proven otherwise 🙂
Being married to an Astrophysicist helps that notion 😉
Keep your eyes on the stars. They’re for real 🙂
They are 😊
What a lovely post. The part about making yourself sadder when you’re already feeling sad made me think of two things —
First, a quote from Doctor Who, although The Doctor himself didn’t say it — “Sad is happy for deep people.” Thinking, introspective people find a comfort in exploring sad.
Second, I think death punches a deep hole inside us, like a meteorite hitting the earth — but we look to fill that hole. Fluff doesn’t work to fill it. At all. Only the weight of other heavy feelings will work. And sometimes, we just need to explore the crater before we move on.
Thank you Sally. Doctor Who’s comment is one to bottle, I think. Your own comment about death punching a deep hole that fluff can’t fill is also profound and true. My function in this instance is to hold my husband steady until he has explored his crator. And I am happy to do that, of course.
I am so sorry for both of your losses. I received a letter from one of my closest friends in Scotland and the first page was a litany of deaths and illnesses. We are at an age when death approaches and we finally have a handle on the meaning of life. It is short and often sweet so enjoy each moment. Beautiful blog, my friend.
I am so sorry, Kerry … I overlooked to like or reply. I promise it was not meant. I read your comment when you posted it and took it to heart …. and I am sad and sorry for your loss. A friend, a real friend is a treasure and a rare one. Those that we allow to be close to us are few in most lives. In most wise lives at least. And you are so right. We are ( you and I having made our entrance in this earth-place at strikingly similar moments) of an epoque that dictates that death will begin to surround us and it will cloak us more and more firmly with the news of others’emise and one day we won’t notice anymore because the Reaper will have decided to take us on our path. And life is for embracing. There are moments when that is devastatingly difficult – I know you know that better than most. But when we can, we should. Duty and all that. And I am glad. So glad you enjoyed this. X
Another friend died on Saturday, peacefully and not in pain, so your response is timely as is your post.
My heartfelt condolences and gratitude that your friend passed peacefully and painlessly. For those left the pain will take longer to find it’s place in their fabric. That includes you and I send you my warmest wishes for a peaceful reconciling of your feelings.
Thank you, K x
Reblogged this on Haddon Musings and commented:
A thought filled post filled with quiet gratitude for life.
Thank you for sharing this, Bernadette. I am humbled.
Thoughtful and thought-provoking post reminding me the importance of living and loving whiile we can. Thanks for sharing… Prayers for comfort in all of our losses.
Bette, how very kind of you to take the time to stop by and comment. And such a lovely comment. I thank you from my warm heart ❤️
There’s a beautiful sadness in your post O. I have explored your crater many times…inevitable at my age. I so agree that it’s necessary, vital even to explore it. When we come out I think we are stronger for the experience. My school anthem used to have a line in it “Live every day as t’were your last”. I can’t say I always manage it but the idea is there, written on my heart. My extra extra very best wishes for you all at this time and celebrate your friend’s life as well as mourn his passing. Big hugs.
I seem to have missed a few replies. I guess it was the hardware not the heart because I was sure I had. I love that anthem. It really is one to take to heart and peep at daily/ Thank you for your kind wishes. We are living. That is fortunate.
Surreal and hypnotic poem. Death takes on many roles and though, he is someone we all fear on some level, he knows how to blend in and become comfortable in all elements. What an intriguing mind you have and one which will be exciting to explore!
My best thoughts to you and your husband during these inconsolable times. Grief is something no one longs for, but when it comes, there’s nothing else one can do but allow it to sit by us until it decides to quietly fade into the walls. You do well in creating a masterpiece from pain. I hope, in time, that helps you heal.
Thank you so much. Your comment oozes understanding and compassion. Neruda was a maestro in my view, worthy of his Nobel.
Your story has reminded me of a quote from the ‘Wizard of Oz’ and said by the Wizard.
“A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.”
Your friend’s death is sad and painful, but his life must of been filled with the warmth of safety and joyous moments to be loved by so many people.
He was a great man – truly wise and decent. That he earned those words in epitaph speaks of a life well-lived
Fiona, it is a strange and beautiful gift to be able to look at this post, read and study it.
Strange~ because I feel I have “known you forever” but had not read this before. <3
Beautiful~ because it holds many precious nuggets of truth. They include the way we tend to really need to "wallow" for awhile when someone special passes away. We need to embrace our sorrow. Beautiful in the natural references (violets and greenery) in the Pablo Neruda poetry quotation. I love the "hush" of death's clothing sounding like a tree's limbs flowing and swaying in the wind.
My condolences sent out to your husband at the loss of his dear friend. A man worthy of mourning the loss of friendship as well as the tribute to his intelligent contributions to this world we live in. The song, "Turn, turn, turn" makes me think of the world continuing to turn on its axis, as seasons change and lives pass by, possibly as Neruda suggests upon beds on a lake of water, with billowing cloth (sheets) sails.
Interesting, I read a blog by a preschool teacher named Jennie. Her blog is about reading classics to children. Over the weekend, I said my Mom had read Pablo Neruda (poet from Spain, I believe) to her classes, as well as the original Spanish version of Don Quixote and another poet from Mexico, Ruben Nunez. Hugs xo
Robin … this is such a precious comment. I too feel I’ve known you many, may moons. Neruda is amongst the greats. The really greats – I find him soothing and challenging and all things in between as any great artist should be. He was Chilean actually. I am extremely interested in the preschool teacher and her wonderful attitude to teaching young children with great literature. Take good care of yourself. You are a precious soul. Xxx
Once again, we are sharing the same thoughts – Time – I will return to this post tomorrow, as it is now 3AM and I think I must read your words once again, in the light of day. The poem is so vivd and strong, especially at this hour. I will be visiting my parent’s grave next week as I do every season and I religiously sprinkle a package of China blue forget me nots around the base of their headstone in hopes the mowers and edgers will not get too close and one of the seedlings will turn into a blossom even when I am no longer around to make my seasonal pilgrimage to their resting place. Good night, my friend. I’ll visit again tomorrow.
That is a beautiful comment and to be treasured. Your forget-me-nots are quite breathtakingly lovely a notion.
They are pretty little flowers which are quite persistent in covering space. This year I am finding them in our grass and so must mow around them. Maybe some day, they will actually take over and the grass won’t stand a chance.
What a glorious thought … a lawn of forget-me-nots 😊
All your posts are special, heart-felt and wonderful, but this one even more so… I love Neruda and his words are just perfect.
I am so very sorry for both your loss – to loose a dear friend is always terrible, to loose an honorary parent is so much worse, it takes out our very soul and drops it into a dark well of hopelessness. Huge hugs and hopes for sunshine to both of you! xxxxxxxx
I have another Neruda poem in my head as I read your lovely note. ‘Dead Woman’ where he says ‘my feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping,but I will stay alive because, my love, above all things you wanted me indomitable’. Thank you. The loss really is my husband’s. Patrick was knit into his life over decades where I only met him very late on. However, being the guardian of my husband’s heart, it hurts me to see him in pain. Pat will find his place niched in my husband’s heart and in that way, my husband will never lose him. That, I believe, is the way of life and death. Mourning is the period of time it takes to accept your lost one into your fabric. The pain never dies but it is born more easily when it settles into its place. Neruda, you might guess, is one of the enduring loves of my life. I’m glad we share that love xxxxx
Me again… The simplicity and the comfort you put into these two sentences is a profound awakening for me. “Mourning is the period of time it takes to accept your lost one into your fabric. The pain never dies but it is born more easily when it settles into its place.”
This puts an understandable and positive explanation to a feeling. Thank you Osyth 🌻
You are kind to me. Very kind.
That is another wonderful poem by Neruda that I love so much!
Seeing someone in pain we love is one the most terrible things to endure, I feel, but I know that you will take very good care for your husband´s heart. I like your notion of being its guardian 🙂 Makes me somehow imagine you clad in silver and shiny armor, ready to battle anything that might come his way. xxxxxxx
I would battle for anyone I love. Just call me Jeanne d’Arc!! X
I hesitate to write. Wanting to preserve the exquisite beauty of your words and Neruda’s.
Your description of the hand written letter resonates deeply for me. I feel emotions rise up in my body as I read your words and see the images they bring forth: the holding, putting down, picking up again, tearing it apart in despair, or setting it aside to rediscover over time as it fades tucked away in some drawer or notebook.
The beauty of a hand written letter. A tradition that has travelled through centuries and now seems to be fading. Thank you for bringing it to life.
And then there is Pablo Neruda… divine
It saddens me deeply that letter writing, proper letter writing using pen and paper (or any other writing tool for that matter …. I have those written with wax crayons by my children and one written with a burnt stick by my best friend at Brownie camp when we were 7 years old.), that letter writing is dying. Like everything, when it is gone it is gone and gone will be that tangible thing that you can touch not simply with your eyes and that fades just as we do quite beautifully with time. Neruda is incomparable.
How wonderful to be remembered with such love and admiration when life slips by… and you’re so right.. we have to remind ourselves every day that we are lucky to be able to wake up and be able to ‘smell the roses’ in our lives.. those opportunities can disappear without warning… A lovely and very thoughtful post Osyth and I hope it bought some comfort to two brains.. xx
Thank you, Wendy. It is that simple. It did bring comfort to him, and more tears too which is part of the point in the very early stages of grieving. Almost two weeks on from the news, he is beginning to find joy in the memories to silver-line the sadness. Xx
Oh bless him.. those early days of losing someone we love and admire are so hard and how lovely that you’ve helped him move forward to finding joy in memories.. he must’ve been a very special person ! xxx
Would you write a book, because 908 people aren’t enough to be reading this.
Thank you, also, for the exquisitely kind comment on my post.
That provoked a very unseemly torrent of tears. Thank you. Just thank you.
Right back at ya, ’tis a tearful kinda day. God knows why. The sun is almost shining and the birds are singing, the world is still turning and you are very much appreciated.
Oh that pesky subconscious insists on whirring away without permission I find and leaves my conscious quite bewildered on occasion. I wish you less tears tomorrow.