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Rant #60
(published Late in the Year, 2001)
We Whistlers in the Graveyard
by David Erik Nelson

I remember covering poetic form (meter, rime, etc.) the first year that I taught English for pay. We were working with some Emily Dickinson, so I told my students that old yarn about how you can sing any Dickinson poem to the tune of the "Gilligan's Island" theme song— sure, it's poppycock (most of her poems can be sung to Gilligan's theme, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" and "Yellow Rose of Texas," but by no means do all fit the tunes), but the kids were delighted by my troubadour treatment of whatever Dickinson happened to appear on the page they randomly selected. Besides, it was my first year teaching English at an alternative, child-centered school— I didn't know what I was doing, they didn't know what they were doing . . . catch-as-catch-can was the order of the day. And, for that matter, it still is. God help us all.

So, when the singing was all said and done, we began talking about why this parlor trick worked. I pointed out that it was mostly due to the fact that Emily D had a great affection for common meter (which means, the astute members of the audience might quip, that we can add the tune of "Amazing Grace" to our E.D. song list) and "Gilligan's Island", like many simple, happy jingles, is in common meter.

But the question remained: Why did Emmy D, a woman whose poetry is notable in its consistent, compulsive brooding upon Death, favor the optimistic, upbeat common meter? if E.D. was essentially "goth" (and thus an early crony of fellows like Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson), why the happy tune? If she was a happy, jingle kinda gal (someone who, with a little medication and therapy, might succeed in a Park Avenue ad agency in the late 20th Century), then why was she always bordering on being a thanatophilie (or at least nurturing a burgeoning thanato-obsessive complex)?

We determined that Emmy D clung to common meter— almost nursery-rhyme meter— in an attempt to render Death (which she couldn't help but think of almost constantly) less scary. Her common meter is thus like the lone traveler's whistling through the graveyard.

I'm thinking on this because it is November 1, All Saints Day, the Day of the Dead. To those old pagan bastards Nov 1 was, appropriately, the beginning of the "dying time." Truth told, I'm also thinking about it because of Sept 11, because of anthrax on the east coast, because of the bombs in Afghanistan, because of the 4,000 corpses still hidden in Lower Manhattan, because of the suffering in the desert here and the desert far away.

In the last month and a half I've developed new habits. I think about the following little Talmudic anecdote a lot:

Rabbi Eliezer once told his disciples "Listen, I've been thinking about it, and you really only need to get everything right on the last day of your life; that's when you need to square everything away."

"Excellent," they replied, "this is good. We can work with this. But how do we know which day is the last?"

"That's the trick," the Rabbi replied, "now isn't it?"

My short hand for this is: "Today is the last day of my life. Today I am going to die." Try this, as a little, experiment: when you walk to your car in the morning, or while brushing your teeth, as as you rise up and lie down, or whenever, just say to yourself "Today I am going to die." At the very least, the Buddhist elements in your life will strongly approve of such a habit. Testimonial: I'm finding that it's a helluva lot easier to do everything right if you know it's the last day of your life. There's little you can't face, and face well, with the secret knowledge that you are careering deathward at an ever-increasing pace. Food for thought, friends, that's all I'm offering.

I don't think I should seek counseling, in case you're wondering. I don't think this is scary, or weird, or unbalanced or a harbinger of some deeper philosophical rift that will lead to me slipping a gun in my mouth. Mine is the rational reaction to what is happening in the world. Do you know anyone who isn't thinking about Death a little more these days? If so, I'd look out for that person, 'cause he or she (but probably he, isn't it almost always a he?) is most certainly dangerous, if not to himself, then assuredly to others.

About a year after that Emily Dickinson lesson I attended a funeral. My sister's husband's grandmother had died on a Thursday night, and thus was buried the following Sunday (first available working day after the Sabbath) This is to say that Nicole's Kevin's Isabelle died. Belle was a terrific lady— a New Yorker by birth, lucid (right up 'til the end) and kind and funny (the first time she met my girlfriend, Cara, Belle shared her full repertoire of dirty jokes.) Belle was short and wizened and gray haired and crotchety. Like all old Jewish women, Belle was obsessed with my hair (I had then, and have just yet, long, curly brown hair— think Samson, minus the muscles, smothered in charm. That's me.), obsessed with plots to capture my hair and have a wig made from it (This sounds more grizzly than it's meant to. Trust me when I say it was endearing.) The last thing she told me— and this is on her death bed— was that I could keep my hair, that I would be needing it (it was February in Michigan) and she would not. This is all to say that if ever a human being had character, Belle had it. Had it in spades.

At the interment we say the Kaddish— the prayer for the dead. But, really, it isn't for the dead at all. Nowhere in the Kaddish is death mentioned. Keep in mind that this prayer isn't even in Hebrew— the Kaddish is so old that it's in Aramaic. It's, in all likelihood, older than Judaism itself. The entire text of it is the working and re-working (conjugating, declining, shuffling) of the phrase "God is great." Clearly, the Kaddish is for us. At the funeral I was a pall-bearer in borrowed clothes, a burier, a Kaddisher (mumbled— I recall very little of my Kaddish from way back in my Bar Mitzvah days)— and all through this I thought of Emily:

A throe upon the features,
A hurry in the breath,
An exctasy of parting
Denominated "Death,"

An anguish at the mention
Which, when to patience grown,
I've known permission given
To rejoin its own.

Cheerful Emily, mournful Emily, scared and reflective Emily. The Kaddish is for us, we whistlers in the boneyard, we thanatic jingle-writers, we carolers of Death. Even my navel-gazing on the belly of death that is mine, my mantra-concentration of Rabbi Eliezer's advice, despite being morbid, it is still for me, for us, for we who live. The flags pasted in windows are for us, the flags on t-shirts, the flags made of seed-beads and safety-pins by elementary-school age sons and daughters, the flag decals on every truck on the road— it is all for us. As are the bombs, I suppose.

This isn't supposed to be morbid: all of this— and I personally swear this is true— is glorious. Maybe there are more reasons than the one— the obvious one— for whistling in the graveyard. Maybe we whistle among the dead because we're scared, and the song helps us keep a hand on the fear— and maybe we do it because it is fun, fun to stand in contempt of annihilation.

And maybe we whistle 'cause we ought to, because at the end of the day, we owe Death something.

I imagine Emily dancing cheek-to-chops with the Eternal Footman, leaping and bounding in a swirling cataract of her black weeds, his tattered robes. How jubilant they are, how graceful, as they polka across the fields of the dead, through the salty spray of "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale / a tale of a fateful trip . . ."

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