This morning I have been reading Ecclesiastes. For non-Biblical types, that’s the collected wisdom of Solomon, son of David, who supposedly was the wisest person in the whole world. Solomon had this to say about life: it sucks, and then you die and someone else gets your stuff.
Ecclesiastes is not for the faint of heart, and it seems like an odd choice for the days after Christmas when we’re all so full of joy and light and turkey that we could explode. But the older we get, my friends, the more we realize that nothing lasts—not the lights, tinsel, trees, or even the families that gather within our walls.
On Christmas Eve, my precious aunt shut her eyes forever on this world. Her son, who had been keeping a familiar vigil, sent me a text message: “She’s gone.”
Now listen. A lot of people jump straight on that “She’s not gone, she’s waiting for you in Heaven” train, but that one doesn’t stop here. Sorry. She’s gone. She is not here. She will not be here any more. This is what Emily Dickinson—and I can’t believe I’m quoting her—meant when she said that “Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell.”
To jump on the pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by train is to circumvent something really important. Nothing lasts. King David said that, and Solomon, and Shakespeare has said that, and my own favorite, Mary Oliver, as if poets have some pipeline to truth that we have probably shut off out of fear. We use drugs, alcohol, technology, anything to drown out the awareness of our impermanence. Time is a lot of things, but the one we try hardest to push away is that it is relentless.
My favorite memory of my aunt, and I have lots, is of her when she is a lot younger than I am now, and she is staring at her sons and my sister and me in horror because we are playing penny-ante poker with .22 caliber shells instead of pennies. She ruined a perfectly good poker game, although possibly she preserved our heedless little lives.
. . . For a while.
For once, I am not going to be a prescriptivist. Solomon said everything we do and are is pretty much meaningless. Then I think about my aunt, gentle and patient and funny and wise. Solomon took the long view and, okay, in another generation or two nobody’s going to remember much about us. But the short view is the one that’s important, and in that perspective, her memory is more precious than my comfort.
Today’s true thing is that I will savor those memories even though they sting a bit, and then try to take pleasure in this day and live in a way that makes other people glad I was around. Solomon said that God has set eternity in people’s hearts, and I have no idea what that means, but for today I am aware that I have zero bright December 27, 2013 mornings left, so this one is precious.