You That Seek What Life Is In Death

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Poetry comes in small lines and phrases, changing in every moment of remembering in the mind and in the voice and in the hearing of anyone who attends to and recollects poems.  Poems as lines of Bumper Sticker recollection wake us up and relish our lives, often in ways in which we don’t know where these lines of poetry come from, but they are words that matter to us, words that wake and make us.

Poetry and words of poems in merest snippets can make wonders of our lives, or allow our lives to long for wonders.

In 2013 Dr. Paul Kalanithi told a close friend that he had terminal cancer.  Kalanithi died in 2015 from lung cancer.  Kalanithi wrote a book of his dying, When Breath Becomes Air.  It is an extraordinary book to read.  The title alone is worth the gift of Kalanithi of his book.

A neurosurgical resident and astonishingly insightful, articulate, sympathetic and honest, Kalanithi’s book is a relentless challenge to wake up and breathe into, and out, what life is in us.

The title of Kalanithi’s meditation on his dying turns to a song cycle by the English Renaissance poet Fulke Greville, a contemporary of Shakespeare, but exploring poetry in a very different way.  Greville wrote a cycle of poems to an imagined love, Caelica.  Amidst this long series of poems Greville writes,

You that seek what life is in death,

Now find it air that once was breath.

New names unknown, old names gone:

Till time end bodies, but souls none.

               Reader! then make time, while you be,

               But steps to your eternity.

Greville’s poem and what Kalanithi found there for the transformation of the medical and human concern for active breath, whether a doctor listening to establish life in the ongoing wheeze beyond death, or the movie or tale or Emily Dickinson poem of the last breath out, the off and away — Kalanithi in his dying found in Greville’s poem a precise and gift beyond all the sympathies and prayers and muddle of dying, this precise gift of attention, “air that once was breath”.

This gift of a small bit of poetry is an enormous gift — to feel in one’s every breath the last of breath, and the expanse of air, of weather and wind, off all life breathed out into the wild and wondering company of the world, a whoosh into the nostrils of a far other, an alien far beyond, a breath translated from air into breath utterly other, and out again.

Bits of poems offer amazing things dazzled and undone to listen to.  What does Greville’s poem mean to you?  Listen and read aloud and over.  What do you think Greville’s poem meant to him?  Read and listen again, bring home….

Reader!  then make time, while you be,

But steps to your eternity.

So much in Greville’s poem to listen and role and wonder and talk about and amidst.  As you take a breath just now, and breathe then out — what have you let go?  Your life, the breath of God into you, and now whisked out and away into the world — not YOU?  How do we live alive in the midst of God’s breathing into and out and with us?  Or, as Greville says so much better :

You that seek what life is in death,

Now find it air that once was breath.

— What do you think of Kalanithi’s way of accepting, and not, his dying?  Is death the last breathing out of life?  How does such an image or script play out in books and movies of dying?  How does Greville and then Kalanithi challenge the movie version of dying?  How do they say a way into your own worries and fears, wonders and breathings?

Do we find out “what life is in death”, that breathing out of breath into air?  Is that what the emptying out of Jesus into human life and dying is about?  Is that what my own dying out, emptying out of all me, is about?

Fulke Greville uses words and wonders to talk about ourselves abandoned in the Gospels into our own lives and our varied company and here and now.  You that seek what life is in death…. so what do you wish and think and wonder?  

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