Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The things we carry

Almost two years ago, during the hot, dazed August of my diagnosis, I was sitting at my desk. Word had gone around about the cancer; I was having painful but sustaining conversations with my friends and co-workers, explaining what I had learned, what I thought it meant, and appreciating all the offers of help. (Of course, then, as now, I wasn't sure what would actually help.) Then another knock at the door. J. this time. 

He came in and we talked about the illness and his sorrow about it and he reached out casually to touch my shoulder -- and that effort to reach across the divide, to physically comfort someone he didn't really know all that well -- touched me so much that my mask almost crumpled into tears. We talked about practical things, possible personal connections to oncologists and such, and J. also told me a story from Annie Dillard about monks being instructed to carry their mortality like a hot coal.

I imagined cowls, a walk down long road. I imagined the heat and pain of this constant companion; but also how, possibly, it might sharpen one's perception of the world. But who would choose to live this way? And why? J. and I didn't talk about that -- we were at work, after all -- and I didn't go back to Annie Dillard until almost two years later.

I think the dying pray at the last not ‘please’ but ‘thank you’, as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocksDivinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing whatever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part. 

Reality check. 

A "live" coal, not a hot one. No burning, no warmth. 

And what's up with the airplane? The 'thank you' at the last I get generally -- but not in a falling airplane, not in this universe. Dillard, you're nuts! (OK, OK, I believe airplanes figure into Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in various ways, so maybe the thank-you criers aren't as crazy as they sound to me.)  


My memory seemed to contradict the actual passage. No burning, no warmth? Talking to another wise friend helped me begin to start making sense of it. One can imagine a certain literal smoldering coal that could be carried somewhere in one's traveling effects but would require vigilance and attention. It wouldn't burn you -- if you respected it and remembered that it was there. Precious vulnerability and mystery. At other stages of my life, I do not believe I would, like the monk, elect to carry the knowledge of my vulnerability so closely; but since I have been handed a coal, I am trying to learn to attend to it and walk my road without fear.

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