Consolation and empathy in a time of plague: Some helpful readings
A funeral for a coronavirus victim in Milwaukee last week in late March. | Carrie Antlfinger / AP

The world is passing through a time of epic plague, and empathy is in short supply. The usual observances are missing. Public gatherings don’t take place. Funerals are brief affairs, just quick burials or cremations. Eulogies are postponed.

People return home to mourn alone, finding whatever solace may come though a shaky, impersonal online family video conference. Friends and relations can’t visit to reminisce, share a favorite recipe, shed a tear, or comfort a sobbing survivor. Grief and sadness are exponentially multiplied by isolation. There is no Consoler in Chief.

“Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, a memorial celebration will take place at a later time to be announced.” The obituary pages are full of such advisories. When will that later time come? Life will have moved on, perhaps compounded by new losses as the numbers mount, not by the scores or even hundreds now. By the thousands and tens of thousands.

We’d like to share with you a few readings that may serve usefully in this time, and perhaps later too, when all this has quieted down. We won’t get into established religious traditions; there are other places to go for that. These words of comfort reflect a generally humanistic, less particular and more universal outlook.

Human beings have been contemplating mortality since before the time when Homo sapiens emerged. We now know that many animals also experience loss and have their mourning rituals. The fact that life is transitory is recognized in every culture.

The last wishes of Alexander the Great, tutored by the philosopher Aristotle, have come down to us through the millennia. Alexander died in 323 BCE, and as he lay on his deathbed, he spoke to his army generals the following words of wisdom, which are as meaningful today as they were then.

  1. I want the best doctors to carry my coffin to demonstrate that in the face of death, even the finest doctors in the world have no power to heal.
  2. I would like the road to be covered with my treasures so that everybody sees that material wealth, acquired on earth, will stay on earth.
  3. I want my hands to swing in the wind, so that everyone will understand that we come to this world empty-handed, and we leave this world empty-handed, after the most precious treasure of all is exhausted: Time. We do not take to our grave any material wealth. Time is our most precious treasure. We can produce more wealth; however, we cannot produce more time. When we give time, we give a portion of our life, which we can never take back. Our time is our life.

* * *

Casy is a former preacher who has lost his faith, a memorable character in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath who later becomes a labor organizer. He’s traveling with the Joad family on their trek westward out of the Dust Bowl. Grandpa has died along the way. In simple language, Steinbeck recognized the healing, restorative power of the word.

Pa said, “Won’t you say a few words? Ain’t none of our folks ever been buried without a few words.”

Connie led Rose of Sharon to the graveside, she reluctant. “You got to,” Connie said. “It ain’t decent not to. It’ll jus’ be a little.”

The firelight fell on the grouped people, showing their faces and their eyes, dwindling on their dark clothes. All the hats were off now. The light danced, jerking over the people.

Casy said, “It’ll be a short one.” He bowed his head, and the others followed his lead. Casy said solemnly, “This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ just died out of it. I don’t know whether he was good or bad, but that don’t matter much. He was alive, an’ that’s what matters. An’ now his dead, an’ that don’t matter. Heard a fella tell a poem one time, an’ he says ‘All that lives is holy.’ Got to thinkin’, an’ purty soon it means more than the words says. An’ I wouldn’ pray for a ol’ fella that’s dead. He’s awright. He got a job to do, but it’s all laid out for ’im an’ there’s on’y one way to do it. But us, we got a job to do, an’ they’s a thousan’ ways, an’ we don’ know which one to take. An’ if I was to pray, it’d be for the folks that don’ know which way to turn. Grampa here, he got the easy straight. An’ now cover ’im up and let ’im get to his work.” He raised his head.

* * *

Another mid-century American writer, William Saroyan, could be cited in a meditation on the meaning of our earthly existence:

In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.

* * *

Other writers, like Alexander the Great, have contemplated their own deaths and left a moral testament to their survivors. Such a poet is Merrit Malloy:

When I die
Give what’s left of me away
To children
And old men that wait to die.

And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you
And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give to them
What you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something,
Something better
Than words
Or sounds.

Look for me
In the people I’ve known
Or loved,
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.

You can love me most
By letting
Hands touch hands
By letting
Bodies touch bodies
And by letting go
Of children
That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die,
People do.
So, when all that’s left of me
Is love,
Give me away.

* * *

The writer Raymond Carver echoed a similar sentiment, knowing all the same that not everyone would pass away able to answer life’s big questions with such confidence:

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

* * *

Love can be described in so many ways. Writers never tire of exploring them. Socially engaged leaders often like to say that love is in budgets, it’s in daycare, in schools, in healthy workplaces, in labor unions, in the anti-nuclear movement, in caring for the bounty of life’s many forms, in plans, numbers, and statistics. Love is a whole society devoted to fulfillment, cooperation, and peace. In her poem “And Then” the feminist artist and writer Judy Chicago writes prophetically about the world for which so many activists have given their lives. Some battles, once considered Utopian, they won, while others are now in the hands of their children in the never-ending struggle:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

* * *

A family of geese walks on a berm at South Lake park, April 30, 2020, in Overland Park, Kan. | Charlie Riedel / AP

Many poets turn to Nature as a source of comfort, in the knowledge that life everlasting may or may not be found in some heavenly or hellish afterworld, but most surely will go in the eternally renewable cycle of Earth’s miracles. Mary Oliver writes of this in her poem “Wild Geese.”

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

* * *

Poet Alison Hawthorne Deming looks not upward to the skies but rather to “This Ground Made of Trees” to find her “place in the family of things.” Although a rumination on the natural processes of decay and decomposition, her reference to “the giants” makes us think of all those—the famous alongside the nameless and unsung—whose efforts to make a better world have built up the rich humus that has fertilized every succeeding generation.

The giants have fallen.
I think I can hear the echo
of their slow composition…
the centuries passing
as note by note
they fall into the forest’s
silent music. Moss has run
over their backs, mushrooms
have sprung from the moss,
mold has coated the fungal caps
and the heartwood
has given itself to
muffled percussion
of insect and microbe
that carpet of sound
that gives the forest its rhythm.
A nuthatch twits
or a vole cheeps.
The scent of decay rises
like steam from a stewpot.
Anywhere I set my foot
a million lives work
at metabolizing
what has gone before them.
The day is shortening
and the winter wrens have
something to say about that.
I can almost give thanks
that the soil will claim me
but first allow me, dear life,
a few more words of praise
for this ground made of trees
where everything is an invitation
to lie down in the moss for good
and become finally really
useful, to pull closed
the drapery of lichen
and let the night birds
call me home.

* * *

In 2019 I reviewed How To Go On, a unique choral work by composer Dale Trumbore with texts by several women poets. It could be characterized as a “secular requiem.” The following three poems are taken from that work.

Requiescat
By Barbara Crooker

Let us go, let go with the few roots
you have left clinging to this earth,
pull free, like the clean snap of a carrot
or radish, let us go, shake off this dirt,
let go, let go of your family, their story
hasn’t been told, yours is already written,
let go of the world, its sweetness and sorrow,
let go of your friends, we will cry, yes,
but we will not forget you, let go,
let go your fierce will and stubbornness,
it served you well, now let it go,
your courage will remain, let your daughters
become women, your husband lie in his bed of pain,
your long journey is over, theirs is beginning,
let us go, become spirit and light, spring rain,
fly away from this prison of bone, let go,
wait for us, we’ll talk again later,
I am here by the phone, waiting for the call,
for this long suffering to be over,
let it go, your work is done,
soon we will bring you to the river,
bring your ashes to the current, let them flow free,
earth, fire, cinders, rain, wait for us
on the other side of the river, let us go.

* * *

When at Last I Join
By Amy Fleury

When at last I join the democracy of dirt,
a tussock earthed over and grass healed,
I’ll gladly conspire in my own diminishment.
Let a pink peony bloom from my chest
and may it be visited by a charm of bees,
who will then carry the talcum of pollen
and nectar of clover to the grove where they hive.
Let the honey they make be broken
from its comb, and release from its golden hold,
onto some animal tongue, my soul.

* * *

However Difficult
By Laura Davies Foley

However difficult you think it might be,
it is yours, this life,
even the failures
are yours,
even the garden, though it be unkempt,
is yours.

* * *

How to conclude this short selection of comforting readings? Except with the hope that they have indeed provided some solace in an all-too-unforgiving world, and that you may perhaps return to some of them in the months and years to come. Let’s go out with a Gaelic prayer:

Deep peace of the running waves to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic.

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