An Eternal Incandescence

On the weekend of my senior prom in high school, I took an impromptu trip to Chicago with my mother. For reasons not worth recounting here, my situation with girls was complicated, and I preferred to run away from it all. I had a few other things on my mind, too. The month before, I’d received my acceptance letter to Georgetown, a dream fulfilled; within a month, I’d be out of high school, and my parents’ divorce, long in the works, would be final. I was not exactly in my most stable mental state. I needed an escape, and my grandmother’s 80th birthday party provided a retreat into a safe harbor.

At the party, I had a moment to myself with my grandmother. She proceeded to give me the longest, most heartfelt hug I have ever received. She expressed some pride that I was headed to Georgetown—maybe I’d turn out a good Catholic boy after all!—but it quickly dawned on me that she was saying far more with that hug than a comment on college choice. There are a few people in life with whom I feel deeply in tune, fellow observers of the world passing before us whom I can read and who can read me in an instant. A quick look, even when cryptic, could convey paragraphs. Grandma was one of those people, and it was in that moment that I came to understand the meaning of unconditional love.

Her smile was a window unto an eternal incandescence. Her spirit gushed and overflowed and swept us up, making us forget pity, caution, concern, everything but the pleasure of her presence. -Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

Grandma was something of an expert on the topic. As the mother of twelve children, she shepherded them all through their highs, lows, and all of the tumult that our sprawling clan mustered. If natality, as Hannah Arendt claimed, is indeed the miracle that saves the world, she brought about that destiny time and time again. It all seemed to come with a certain ease. There were, of course, times when it all drained her; times when wayward members of her lineage led her to shake her head and purse her lips. But she knew that the richness of her creation far exceeded its exhaustions, and by the time I came along, she’d seen it all, and knew what we needed in certain moments.

That innate connection appeared once again when I saw her for the final time this past April. Due to the coronavirus it was our first in-person visit in over a year, and she was moving more slowly, thinking more slowly, steadily slipping away into the mists beyond. We both seemed to have the sense this might be the last time we saw each other. We had a long goodbye, and we shared one final significant look that said it all: we would confront what came next, not without a little fear, but also with knowledge, with a certain faith. That was enough to see us through.

Grandma’s death this past week, at the age of 93, came with a characteristic grace. While there were struggles, she always seemed to slide easily and deliberately through life, and there was never a radical turn. When she lost her husband of 67 years, she mourned but moved on, kept up her joyous spirits, tiring more easily but still ready to be part of the endless family party. Unlike Grandpa, she did not crash with age; instead, it was a slow, gentle fade, tinged by the occasional frustration and uncertainty, but never far from her characteristic good humor. My Aunt Mary Beth took her in for the final four years of her life, an act of quiet heroism that made sure my grandfather’s rough decline in sterile hospitals would not befall her. She eased away with a steady stream of family visits and put up with the chaos of weekly Zooms during her final year. When it was time to go, she went quickly, waiting just long enough for Mary Beth to return from a much-needed trip with her son and grandchildren to Cape Cod, muttering a few final phrases in Polish to come full circle, family by her side as the breaths slid away.

Like her husband and so many of her progeny, Grandma possessed a robust mind. This young Polish girl from the city attended the University of Chicago in the 1940s, a feat whose impressiveness did not dawn on me until late in her life. While she didn’t get lost in intellectual tomes and debates the way Grandpa did, she kept herself busy, always ready to exercise a politely judgmental curiosity, whether over some book or movie or adventure of her offspring or in the complete tour of a giant book on art history that she and I once undertook. In coronavirus quarantine I picked up her crossword puzzle habit; toward the end, when that was beyond her, she settled for marathons of Rummikub, which now threatens euchre’s position as the official family game. If Grandpa was the driving force of nature who made their small empire possible, Grandma was its deep guiding core, her mere presence creating a sense that this all should come naturally.

The family Zooms over the final year and a half of her life gave us occasion to bust out old pictures and gifted me a window into the formation of a suburban Chicago matriarch. There were her childhood ventures to Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, an ever-burgeoning clan filling first the house on Ardmore in Villa Park and then the house on Edgewood in Lombard, and later at the homes of aunts and uncles and out in Huntley. The steady string of lifelong friends, couples on a shared journey: Gingers, Gioias, Fanellas, and so on. Catholic masses, chaotic Christmas parties, Cubs games, a few European cruises, a papal mass. Joy filled it all from start to finish.

Grandma fell in love with the Northwoods of Wisconsin, long a family retreat, and I can still see her contented smile on the deck overlooking East Twin Lake. My Aunt Lucy’s transcription of her Northwoods journals early in the coronavirus pandemic were a revelation, a deeper dive into a mind whose contours felt both new and exactly right. Her work inspired me to start a simple journal with posterity in mind, a daily exercise that got beyond the alternating poles of incredible detachment and deeply personal musing that consume so much of my own output, and settled for easy reflection on the passing days. “I try not to feel apprehension — keep telling myself to just ENJOY what we’ve been given,” she writes on day one of the journal. An ethos we can all take to heart.

What I will remember forever, however, is her laugh. It had a full spectrum, from a quick chuckling eddy to a deep, full-throated roller, a cycle of the tides to fit any occasion. It was always ready, sometimes delighted and sometimes resigned, but always able to light up a room. The punches have come hard for us Maloneys in 2020: first an aunt and then a cousin and now the woman who birthed it all. At least now we can all be together again in the flesh to send her off. So I will dust off my suit, pour myself a Manhattan, and prepare one final do widzenia to the woman whose easy delight at the world around her made possible a life in accord with the rhythms of her world. We multitudes who follow all carry that light.

Twenty-Three

Then Almitra spoke, saying, We would ask now of Death.

And he said:

You would know the secret of Death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.

If you indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

*

In the depths of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;

And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.

Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.

Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.

Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?

Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

*

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?

And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

*

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.

And when you have reached the mountain top, you shall begin to climb.

And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

Happy 23rd, bro.

22

The annual Octavio Paz poem on this date:

Pause

They’ve come:

a few birds

and a black thought.

Murmur of trees,

murmur of trains and engines,

is this moment coming or going?

The silence of the sun

is beyond lamentation and laughter,

it sinks its beak

deep in the rocks’ rock scream.

Heart-sun, beating rock,

blood rock that becomes a fruit:

wounds open without pain,

my life flows on, resembling life.

* * *

Happy 22nd, bro. It’s another stellar Grandma’s Marathon day, even if there’s no marathon to run this year. (Okay, a friend and I ran a spontaneous half anyway.) I’ve just committed myself to our city yet again. Confined here in recent months, I’ve come to appreciate it more than ever before: what beauty surrounds us. We don’t need closure. This dream, it never needs to end.

21 Years

As I so often do on this day, I share an Octavio Paz Poem.

Coda

Perhaps to love is to learn
to walk through this world.
To learn to be silent
like the oak and the linden of the fable.
To learn to see.
Your glance scattered seeds.
It planted a tree.
        I talk
because you shake its leaves.

Happy 21st, bro. Your first one is on me, though I’m probably already complicit in your corruption.

Of Fruits and of Dust

A lot of people’s minds in Duluth will be on a visit from the President today. Given the current political climate, I get that. Mine, however, will be elsewhere.

When I was eight years old, my parents had a second son. He was born on this day in 1998. He died three months after his birth. The cause of death was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome—SIDS—which is a fancy way of saying that all the power of modern medicine hadn’t the slightest clue what went wrong.

I’ve written posts to mark this day every year since I started this blog, and a careful reader will find veiled references to him scattered elsewhere, too. Still, I write this post with some reservation. It’s not a story I share often; I don’t like to be maudlin or dwell too much, nor do I enjoy woe-is-me tales or to seek over-emphasize my sufferings, which, on the whole, are few compared to most people on this earth. But my own story is impossible to understand without his story, and so much of me, from guarded opinions to fatalistic tendencies to a belief in brotherhood and community as my highest ideal, stems from him.

Eight years old is old enough to bear witness to everything that happens, but not really to process grief in a mature way. My coping methods were myriad, from distracting myself with baseball to a restless search for a deity that could make sense of things for me. They sometimes brought momentary peace, but never closure. It took me maybe fifteen years to get over certain triggers of bitterness such as questions over what it’s like to be an only child or even just answering the “do you have any siblings” question. Trauma steeled me, and because it forced me to confront terrible questions head-on, I can perhaps only be truly, intimately comfortable around those who also confront them, in one way or another. Commitment hasn’t come easily because I only commit myself to people or things that can live up to this ideal.

The outpouring of support that followed my brother’s death was overwhelming, and is no small reason why I became such a loyal Duluthian. (Hence my decision to quote this line on this day four years ago.) There are a few stray plaques and markers around Duluth that bear his name, or note donations made in his honor. If you’ve ever seen me in a suit, there’s half a chance I was wearing a lapel pin gifted to me by then-mayor Gary Doty at the funeral, or at least had it tucked away in a pocket, ready at hand. I went back to school the day he died because that was the place I felt most comfortable, and my loyalty to my various alma maters probably has some roots in the unwavering support I found that day.

I remember the events surrounding his death as if they were yesterday, but retain only a few details of his life: the delivery room in St. Luke’s, overlooking his crib with the tune of a musical cow toy tinkling away, meeting him and my mom at a state park up the Shore after my dad took me on my first backpacking trip that summer. And since, there have been vivid glimpses of what could have been, if only in my mind: a hazy summer day atop Blue Mound in Wisconsin, a moment of solitude in Zion, standing at the start line of the half marathon in Duluth. (My brother was born the day of the marathon, and in a spurt of serendipity, the last name of the winner of the race that day was the same as his first). The day that would have been his Duluth East graduation day, and the stray dream here and there. At this point, it all feels like dreams; some conscious, some less so.

My mother and I will spend the evening far from any political happenings in downtown Duluth. This is no retreat, though. A life in the world is built on these ties, in what it means to love people or a place or overcome those moments when all hope or reason seems gone from the world. Without them, we have little to build from, and nothing to pass on.

I close with an Octavio Paz poem, as his words have so often seemed fitting for this day.

“The Simple Life”

Call bread bread and that it appear

on the tablecloth each day;

give to the sweat what it wants and to the dream

and the brief heaven and hell

and the body each minute what they ask for;

smile like the sea smiles, the wind smiles,

without laughter sounding like broken glass;

drink and in drunkenness seize life,

dance the dance without losing a step,

touch the hand of a stranger

on a day of hardness and agony

and that that hand have the firmness

that that of a friend never had;

try solitude without the vinegar

that makes my mouth contort, nor repeat

my grimaces in the mirror, nor the silence

that bristles with teeth that grate:

these four walls – paper, plaster,

thin carpet and yellowing bulb?

are still not the promised hell;

may not that desire hurt me more,

frozen by fear, a cold wound

burned by lips unkissed:

clear water never pauses

and there is fruit that falls once ripe;

know to break the bread and share it,

the bread is a truth common to all of us,

the bread sustains us all,

through its leavening I am a man,

a neighbor among neighbors;

fight for the life of the living,

give life to the living, to life,

And bury the dead and forgotten

as the earth forgets them: in fruit …

and at the moment of my death may I reach

death like men and that to me come

forgiveness and the everlasting life of dust,

of fruits, and of dust.

Stolen Time

While perusing the sprawling and unwieldy Word document in which I barf out thoughts for blog posts, I stumbled upon an article I’d stashed away for my post on my Georgetown reunion some months ago, but forgot and only now rediscovered. It’s an essay by Joseph Bottum, a 1981 Georgetown grad who has gone on to some prominence as a socially conservative intellectual, and once stole the hands off the clock tower on Georgetown’s Healy Hall. The theft of the clock hands on Healy is a timeless Hoya tradition, and after a period of relative rarity, it happened my senior year.

Bottum floats the thought that he and his co-conspirators were metaphorically trying to stop time, but concludes that they probably weren’t so clever. They were young, he says; they didn’t know what the passage of time meant, not really. I suggest he give his college-age self a little more credit: I titled the photo below “Georgetown Is Timeless” after snapping it back in 2012, and was definitely aiming for a certain symbolism. A 22-year-old is certainly capable of recognizing the march of time, of knowing that things aren’t as they used to be, and high school and college graduations tend to bring out the earnest reflections that stem from a first encounter with farewells, even if we know these are temporary and relatively painless shifts. Bottum’s point, however, is that these early markers of time’s passage mean little when weighed against the heavier ones that come with more final farewells.

HealyHands

For the luckiest among us, any consciousness of human mortality takes its time in rearing its head. Life progresses from one stage to another in smooth transitions. We have this vague sense of when changes are supposed to occur, and life’s failure to conform rips holes in our very conception of time. Bottum drives at this when he talks about how death seems different, depending on one’s age. When people my age die, it’s a shock and a tragedy; when people Bottum’s age die, it’s a bit too soon but an acknowledged possibility; a generation older, it’s no great shock, the natural passage of time. But time’s contours rarely behave in such an easy way, and before long each one of us is tested by something that disrupts this flow, great or small. No moment is more formative, and while I’d wish it on no one, it can also stir forth some of the most admirable human qualities in response.

Early brushes with mortality tend to age us prematurely, but they also distort all the time that came before them. Those preceding moments now seem all too short but linger forever, make one wonder if the way we flow through time, measured in minutes and seconds and hours and all lined up in perfect linear form, doesn’t mistake its true nature. Go deep into quantum physics and it will all break down, yes, but maybe the disconnect registers on a more immediate, deeper level, one that lets certain moments endure for an eternity while so much of our day-to-day lives fades into an unremarkable blur. No matter how long these moments may last on a clock or a calendar, their end will inevitably bring the sense that time has been stolen from us; time we’ll never have back save in the recesses of wandering minds. And so we preserve it there, make sure we never forget, and use it as best we can to form us in who we become.

We don’t need to steal clock hands to rebel against the march of time, but the thieves of Healy Hall do have lessons for us, whether we’re aware of them or not. When we become aware of stolen time we come in tune with far broader forces, and they ground us, make us believe things like the quote I shared on this day three years ago. When we know where we come from and know why it is we want to get to wherever we’re going, we can steal some time back ourselves.

Happy 19th, bro.

Et in Arcadia Ego

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.

-Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

The purity of memory never lasts. Those happiest of moments become tinged by time, whether abruptly or by a slow and steady march. The markers of a carefree youth age away, and the impermanence of all things becomes all too real. Cause for defeat, for fear? No: an added sense of urgency, a realization that every little moment is precious. Reminders that we can build something real; even if it only lasts an instant, we can cherish it for a lifetime. We cannot control history, but we do have at least some control of the narrative that emerges from it. It takes time. But time, just as it can wear things down, brings wisdom, and renews itself in cycles that defy the linear logic we’ve imposed on it. Everything dies and nothing dies, and we are left with neither heaven nor hell but earth, where we belong; here, in all its absurd messiness. It’s a beautiful thing.

Always

001

“oh life to live, life already lived,
time that comes back in a swell of sea,
time that recedes without turning its head,
the past is not past, it is still passing by,
flowing silently into the next vanishing moment”
― Octavio Paz, Piedra del sol

***

Seventeen years since those three short months, and yet those short measures of time do it no justice. Everything that came after is in your shadow. First, haunted; now, renewed in timeless joie de vivre. You are mine, and I am yours.

Happy 17th, bro.

6/20

“A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.” 
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

*   *   *

          “Brotherhood”

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
The stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.

           — Octavio Paz

*   *   *

Happy 16th, bro. My debt to you is eternal.