A Lucky Death
Do you, too, hesitate before you begin a writing project?
Sometimes I have an idea, but I have to wait a week or two before I can start. I scribble words on paper, alongside my grocery lists and random thoughts while I wonder, How will I ever begin?
It is during this time that I think of a story about God and Adam that my mother used to tell. The story went something like this:
After God made the body of man out of wet clay, He laid him in the sun to dry, but then He reconsidered his work. Not bad, He thought. But he sure could use a soul.
The soul, hearing God’s words and seeing the dumpy little man, said to herself, No way I’m going into that ugly thing. She flew off and hid.
(The soul, by the way, is always feminine. And always wise.)
So God had to trick the soul. He sent His angels into the clay man to play divine music of exactly the kind that the soul loved. The soul, hearing the heavenly notes coming from the clay man, could not resist. She slipped inside him but could not get out again. Not as long as the man lived.
The soul’s job was to make the man’s life worthy of the songs of angels.
Maybe the metaphor doesn’t make sense, but I think of the empty page, the pen, the idea, the scribbled notes as the writer’s clay. To bring the music and the soul into the words, that is the problem.One summer, when I was a girl, a family came to live in one of the houses on our Virginia farm. I don’t remember why they came, but I remember my mother warning me, They’re Christian Scientists. I was fascinated. They taught me all about their faith. They also read Tarot card readers and palms and saw ghosts. Mrs. Butler, the mother, had a caged bird that she insisted was an angel, even after it died and lay on its feathered back, talons to the sky. She had a white toy poodle who she said could count. She would say, three, and the little dog would yap, yap, yap. She said she could talk to animals, and they would talk to me, too, if I could figure out how to listen.
She had me sit in silence and listen.
I was enthralled. That summer I learned how to read palms and how to tell if I was pregnant.
One day I read the palms of one of the farmhands who quit immediately after my reading, telling my parents I was a witch.
Mrs. Butler said I’d know when I was pregnant when a child’s soul came into my room at night. The soul would check me out before descending into life. Like a fairy or a ghost, a soul leaves tracks.
Like what? I asked, and she said like spilled salt, running faucets, open windows, and dreams—peculiar dreams.
Mrs. Butler claimed that she had dreamt of a brunette girl as small as a pine cone before her daughter, Bonnie, was born. Her other children never made it into human form, she said, meaning what, I wasn’t certain.
Mrs. B. said that the same thing happens at the end of life. Only more so. The soul often hesitates before leaving the body behind. The soul worries that she hasn’t done what she was meant to do.
For many souls, this means death happens not once but several times.
This is another story I think of as metaphor.
How many times I have tried to finish a writing project, only to go back and see I have more work to do.
My memories of Mrs. Bulter remind me of this passage from Yeats’ Celtic Passage“By the Hospital Lane goes the Faeries Path. Every evening they travel from the hill to the sea, from the sea to the hill. At the sea end of their path stands a cottage. One night Mrs. Arbunathy, who lived there, left her door open, as she was expecting her son. Her husband was asleep by the fire; a tall man came in and sat down beside him. After he had been sitting for a while, the woman said, ‘In the name of God, who are you?’ He got up and went out, saying, ‘Never leave the door open at this hour, or evil will come to you.’ She woke her husband and told him. ‘One of the Good People has been with us,’[ he said.
My friend, S., who practices Chinese medicine, tells me I should learn not to rush into things. I am in too much of a hurry. The threshold moments, as she calls them, those moments spent before opening or closing a door, are invaluable to life.
She described to me something she calls a lucky death, or a death one enters with awareness. Usually a lucky death takes a week or two to complete.
One lingers in the foyer, waiting before closing the last door. And opening Death’s Door.
According to her, in the last days of life, a person can experience the final light show of the soul, a show that can go on for days. In that time, her life is illuminated before her.
I was reminded of my mother’s death. How two weeks before she died, we all gathered around for what we thought was the last time, only to see her miraculously regain a little strength for one last week.
Her hospice worker, like S., said this happens quite often. There is a last burst of energy before the end.
As a college student in a religious studies class, I remember pondering the Buddhist belief that it is essential to come to terms with death if one is to come to grips with life.
How do I do that? I asked. One student stood up and announced that he knew exactly how. Because he personally knew God and Satan and Jesus and all the heavenly hosts. In fact had had several chats with Jesus just the night before. But it turned out that he was having a psychotic episode. He had to leave college for the rest of the semester.
In my recent book, Why God Is a Woman, I imagined Death’s Door as an actual door that must be hidden. Otherwise curious children will open it on a dare to see what was on the other side.
I was inspired by those etchings by William Blake of Death’sDoor, particularly the one of a youth resting above a tomb, and an old man ducking through the half-open door, walking stick in hand. I imagined that the youth was like a young writer imagining his future. He imagines that he will write the next Great American Novel. Or be the new Whitman.
The old man, bent and lined, is the writer after he has finished his work. Or rather, after his work has finished with him. He has no more visions of grandeur.
Today I feel like that old man as I finish my latest writing project—totally spent, exhausted, and depressed. I am unsure what is behind the next door.