Sunday, November 2, 2008

All Souls Day

The poet Czeslaw Milosz has always been special to me.

When M and I were still just friends--but friends who sought each other out each day to unload the contents of our heads before the next day came to erase them--he gave me a gorgeous copy of the collected poems of Czeslaw Milosz. That was my first introduction.

Later, I would return to that thick volume the way others might turn to their bibles, always somehow finding the string of words I needed to hear at that particular moment.

Some years ago, I was up late, troubled by my lack of progress with the book I was working on, a book about my grandmother, and feeling very anguished about my calling. I turned to Milosz's book again and opened up to his poem, "On Angels." It ends with these three lines:

day draws near
another one
do what you can

Those words helped cut through my anguish and remind me of the simplicity (not to be confused with easiness) of my task. I wrote them down on a sticky, fixed it to the wall above my desk, and went to sleep.

In the morning I opened my laptop to read the news and was immediately presented with an article telling me that Milosz had died the night before. I had not known he'd been ill and I had not gone looking for news of him. I copy-and-pasted the following lines from the article in an email to Michael:

Milosz died at his home in Krakow surrounded by his family, the assistant, Agnieszka Kosinska, told The Associated Press by telephone. The exact cause of death was not immediately known.

"It's death, simply death. It was his time -- he was 93," Kosinska said.

The uncanny timing leant those words even more power for me, reminding me that each day is, indeed, a gift.

Today is All Souls' Day, a big deal in Poland where both Milosz and my grandmother were from. It's a beautiful holiday meant to help remember the dead as families visit the graves of their relatives and leave behind lit candles to help the souls navigate their way home.

I was lucky enough to experience it myself when I was in Warsaw in 1997, and lucky to have Michael visiting me at the time. We rode a city bus out to a large graveyard and wandered through the hushed and holy place, holding hands, and now and then bending down to place the few candles we'd purchased on graves that seemed emptier than the others--though on All Souls Day, no grave went without at least a dozen candles.

I remember I said something to Michael about how quiet it was, and he pointed out to me the sound of breaking glass. I don't know how I'd missed it. The candles were made to burn a long time, many having been placed the day before, on All Saints Day, and as the built up heat became too much for the thin glass enclosure to take, the glass would sometimes burst. But such a delicate bursting. Like it belonged to a piano key far, far to the right, too far to reach with human hands.

This morning I woke up early, woken by another dream about my grandmother, who passed this July. In the dream I was with my mother, and I was marveling with her about the moment of letting go, what that must be like, to really and truly be done. My mother wrapped her arm around my shoulder and asked a nurse-like figure if we could see the body, because she thought it would be helpful for me to see. The nurse was apprehensive, but she eventually led us through to a darkened room, and there on the table was a body, but it wasn't my grandmother, it was me.

I understood then that the body was just a shell, and that my grandmother's soul had moved on, and there was nothing here for me to see.

Now I'm wide awake, unable to return to sleep, missing my grandmother, appreciating the loyalty of my small black dog who faithfully followed at my grandmother's heels when she was alive and now has followed me from the warm bed where Michael still snores, and is curled on my lap, sleeping, not minding the few drops of wet I'm contributing to his soft black fur.

Mr. Milosz has been good enough to provide me with a new poem this morning, and on this All Souls Day, I share it with you as well.



Arthritically bent, in black, spindle-legged,
They move, leaning on canes, to the altar where the Pantocrator
In a dawn of gilded rays lifts his two fingers.
The mighty, radiant face of the All-Potent
In whom everything was created, whatever is on the earth and in
To whom are submitted the atom and the scale of galaxies,
Rises over the heads of His servants, covered with their shawls
While into their shriveled mouths they receive His flesh.

A mirror, mascara, powder, and cones of carmine
Lured every one of them and they used to dress up
As themselves, adding a brighter glow to their eyes,
A rounder arch to their brows, a denser red to their lips.
They opened themselves, amorous, in the riverside woods,
Carried inside the magnificence of the beloved,
Our mothers whom we have never repaid,
Busy, as we were, with sailing, crossing continents.
And guilty, seeking their forgiveness.

He who has been suffering for ages rescues
Ephemeral moths, tired-winged butterflies in the cold,
Genetrixes with the closed scars of their wombs,
And carries them up to His human Theotokos,
So that the ridicule and pain change into majesty
And thus it is fulfilled, late, without charms and colors,
Our imperfect, earthly love.

--Czeslaw Milosz


jajamama said...

How absolutely wonderful. Thank you for being my lovely daughter who can see so much more than I ever imagined. You continue to delight me.

Luke said...

I just want you to know, I love your electronic thoughts.

JM said...

Thanks, Luke, and Jajamama!

SM said...

just re-read this post-- thank you for your lovely, lovely writing.

dakopyc said...

Remembering my grandmother today, Janina Krzyszowsky Kopyć... who would be 97 today... and found your blog while looking for a suitable Miłosz poem to post beneath her photo today. ;) Thank you for writing this piece. Amazing, the "ordinary magic" we sometimes find on this journey! Bless you... serdecznie... -dk

JM said...

Thanks for stopping by, dakopyc, and for saying hi. Anyone who has known the love of a babcia is lucky indeed...