At Pennsic every year, a memorial ship sails, carrying with it tokens of remembrance of those who have passed, and is lit aflame, as was the Norse custom, to carry the departed aloft. This ship has sailed these past 20 years; the first year, in memory of a King and a Lady cut down too early, and then each year hence. The ship is carried in procession at dusk to the side of the lake, and those who have followed it sing out in voice or in silence, the names of those carried within its keel, and then, set alight, it travels on its way.
Twice the ship has carried my own tokens, those of my parents, and twice I have mourned as I could not in the midst of family and expectations of the shape of grief. Each year now, it seems, its cargo is heavier, those who gather at the side of the lake more numerous, united in the community of loss. Last night, its sail carried the mark of my friend Larisa, and the prow was carved in the shape of a goose in her honour. This year, I could not watch it sail in person, but I caught its final glory as it was streamed live, just after I had initiated my own ritual of remembrance of the journey to eternity.
Yesterday, I picked out from my jewelry box a pendant made from a glass bead fashioned to resemble a fishbowl, including fish and plants. It was the work of the husband of a friend who I know as Mistress Siobhan. Each year at Pennsic, she could be found at her merchant booth, selling a variety of jewellery including, one year, the aquarium beads like the one I own. Like me, she was involved in the editing of SCA newsletters, serving as Kingdom Chronicler; and she had founded the Pennsic newspaper that the Pennsic Independent, where I served as editor until last year, was descended from. She was a wonderful lady with a shock of curly hair and a love for cats, who was sometimes known as “Mistress Carrot” for her beliefs about the carrot being better than the stick as a motivational technique for improvement. And suddenly, a few years ago, in the depths of winter, with almost no notice, we lost her.
I hold up the pendant. She is with me.
From my seat at my desk, I see a beautiful pottery jug, with dark green glaze and a spout with the head of a man. The man who made it, Master Hroar, been elevated to the Order of Laurel within a week or two of me, and I got to know him well in subsequent meetings of the Order as a kind and gentle man, generous with his time and talents. The jug was a special commission made just for me, carrying both the mark of the Laurel and a pomegranite, at the time my badge of choice. He moved out west to be with the love of his life maybe ten years after he made me the jug, and we saw him less frequently, but at Pennsic four or five years back, he was there again with his gorgeous pottery, and on the very last day, I stopped by and purchased one of his puzzle jugs as a wedding gift for a friend, catching up a little on his life. Less than a month after, he, too, was gone.
I pour out water from the jug. He is with me.
When we are younger, the path of life seems clear and straight, and when it is interrupted, it is sudden–a tree crashing down to block it, or perhaps a flash flood, or the incursion of a wild animal. Death is sudden and sharp, and the pain of loss acute, because it is unexpected. As we grow older, the path of our own lives begins to twist–or perhaps it had always twisted, and we just did not realize it. Somewhere, around curves and corners, the end awaits us all, and though we realize the reality of the crooked path, it is because none of us knows where our own path will go that the sense of loss seems duller, yet deeper, inexorable. We begin to count the years, knowing that the halfway point has been crossed–although we do not know the date yet when that event occurred, and we will not know–if we ever do– until the last minutes of life. We begin to take stock of where we have been, what we have done, the obstacles that have thwarted us, and too often we find it wanting. The crooked path is obscured, unknown, and so we look behind us at what we might have become.
But sometimes, we find ourselves in a clearing, alone, or joined with community, as we acknowledge the end of another’s path. And each time, we realize that the ripples of a life may never come back, but they radiate out into eternity, and in unexpected places. There, alone or together, we see these ripples clearly on the faces of others, in our own face, as we remember what was loved, but has not been lost except to time. Sometimes, we regret the word not said, the time not given, the deed not done, that what might have been never was. That is the burden of humanity, to see clearly what we ought to have done. But the gift of humanity is to be able to learn, before it is too late, to cherish what we have and what brings us joy–especially those things that share our mortality– in the time we are given.
And when we inevitably turn the final corner, there is no finer legacy than knowing that while we are not immortal, the ripples of our existence will echo across time–even without great deeds, or works of art, or wealth, or fame. Knowing this truth, we still, at this moment, regardless of who we are, have the power to control our own legacies, our own souls, to control who we are as human beings. Regardless of the agency we lack, or the material things, or the talents, in spite of the fact that the world may have tried its best to break us (and may have succeeded), most of us have the power to determine whether, in the end, we will face the world with anger at what could not be or with love for what might still be. Love is as strong as death, and endures, and ripples down through the years.
Music: Dmitri Shostakovich, Suite on Poems by Michaelangelo, opus 145a, #10 (Death) and #11 (Immortality.) The former was playing at the moment of commemoration of Shostakovich’s death on this day, August 9, 1975, at 7:30 pm Moscow time.
(This recording was made about a year after Shostakovich’s death, with his son conducting)
I had originally intended to listen to three of Shostakovich’s works today in his memory–his final symphony (#15, opus 141); his final quartet (#15, opus 144) and his final work (the Viola Sonata, opus 147), but I detoured after the first two and decided to include his antepenultimate work, the cycle of eleven songs that comprise the Suite, before moving onto the Viola Sonata. And then I decided not to listen to that last work. It will be saved for September 25, the 44th anniversary of its premiere, on the birthday Shostakovich did not live to celebrate.