- A Final Word
When I wrote the essay "A Vow of Poverty" for my new book, Kindly Dark, I ran into an impasse that became a spiritual crisis, until a memory of my grandmother came to the rescue. I was looking at the consolations we offer each other in the face of death. I could not accept traditional religious conceptions of the afterlife, especially a perfect heavenly existence in an endless, cloudless, and—to me—joyless eternity. I was not about to exchange my banjo for a harp. So, with heaven more than a sin away, I needed a backup plan.
I tried on the idea that we keep our spirits alive in the minds of others, glowing forever in their memories. As soon as I jotted the idea down, though, I began to have second thoughts. Such an afterlife would be strange indeed. Plastered into the brains of my loved ones, I could not have a new idea or utter an unexpected word. My loved ones would shave off my rough edges, leaving much of who I am behind, and my enemies—who knows what they would do to the voodoo doll of me that glared from the dark recesses of their minds?
So I turned to the great secular consolation of Wallace Stevens, the poet who in the absence of heaven created an earthly paradise of words. "Death is the mother of beauty," he declared famously in the poem "Sunday Morning." The fruits of life—gathered on the platters of our days—are brought to us by death. Death reddens the rose and sweetens the peach, clearing out the old and ushering in the fresh, the panting, and the delicious. It may be true, but, I wondered as I wrote, is it really a consolation? It means that every moment, as Stevens says in his poem "Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu," we are waving goodbye, offering a bittersweet salute to its passing as we enjoy it. So what happens when the last goodbye arrives? According to the archbishop of Hartford, Stevens chucked his secular views and asked for last rites at his deathbed. [End Page 67]
All of my life I had accepted these two consolations in the face of death. I had not thought hard about them, but simply accepted them because they had a grain of truth and provided comfort. But now, as I began an essay on the subject, I found I could not believe either of them. I create outlines for my essays by clustering, putting ideas down and circling them, with lines showing how any new thought fits in with the others. The finished product looks like a handful of balloons released on a happy day, each bearing some thought aloft, but on this morning, when I discovered I had no idea about how to face death, the last balloon, tethered firmly in my mental fist, sat empty. I had reached an impasse.
That is when my grandmother chimed in with her irritating habit of responding to every choice with the phrase, "That'll be fine."
"Grandma, do you want to go to the bank first or the grocery store?"
"That'll be fine."
"Do you want to visit Keith and Elizabeth or go to town?"
"That'll be fine."
"Do you want arsenic for lunch or strychnine?"
"That'll be fine."
I recall that I had given up on the outline completely and was shaving at the mirror when the phrase struck—and I knew it was my answer. With shaving soap on my face, I marched to my study and wrote down the phrase "that'll be fine," filling in the last balloon.
The personal essay is, for me, a way to think out loud about life's imponderables. Writers of fiction, poetry, and memoir do this too, but not so directly. They are busy creating experiences—making the page come alive in stunning language or engaging narratives. "No ideas but in things" is, generally, their motto. "Present, do not explain." But in the personal essay we have room—an indulgence, some would say—to explain a thought. My grandmother's phrase "that'll be fine" was, I realized...