|The lion in winter|
- James Dickey on why he continued to write and work everyday despite the debilitations of age and illness.
* * *
Sometimes the universe brings about miracles of coincidence that have no explanation other than serendipity. This morning as I scratched about looking for a way to begin, I settled on this remembered quote from James Dickey, poet and novelist best known for his book Deliverance. When I searched the web for a picture of him in his old age I discovered that today, February 2nd, was his birthday.
I don't know about you, but that pleases me in ways that are hard to explain. It's like watching the Fibonacci Sequence unfold and explain everything.
* * *
In the years before he died, weakened by lung disease and the effects of a double-fisted life, James Dickey kept writing, kept producing poetry and commentary and fiction. In his office at the University of South Carolina at Columbia he had three, maybe four typewriters placed on tables around the office. Each typewriter had a sheet of paper in it and each typewriter represented a different project he was working on. He would move from typewriter to typewriter, project to project, gaining ground where ground could be gained. When asked why he continued to work so hard after all he'd accomplished in his life he answered, "Some good may yet be done."
It seemed to me then that this was a good and honest way to die.
I took that line and inserted it into a scholarship application I wrote for my (then) wife. In my hands the words became pompous, bragging, all brass and no timbre. My ex and I laughed and laughed about the words. She got the scholarship and I lost my way.
* * *
If your life is fucked, if you have lost your way, or don't ever remember ever being on your way, then the notion that some good may yet be done is a yakfest, a laughriot, a sop for maroons. It appears childish, naive, sanctimonious, full of foolishness and pride. We fucked love to snark and tear down those who are not like us, those for whom life is worth the pain of living in order find out what's next. We are certain we are wiser, more realistic, and so become more caustic in our judgments of anyone who bothers to try. Trying is for rubes.
Or so we say.
But it's not so, is it?
Trying is all we have.
Trying is all we get.
To bag on it is to bag on living, is to fuck yourself and contort your life into a mis-shapen, soulless thing. Spiritless. Fucked. Useless.
The race has to be run to the finish line, or it's all been a lie, a waste of potential.
I was wrong about my first assessment of Dickey's words. They were not a good and honest way to die, but a good and honest way to live. So what if the days of his finest production were behind him. So what if he was slowed by pain. Until you are stopped dead in your tracks, you have to keep pushing at life, demanding more of it, not less.
* * *
As my sad and gentle father died he gave me and my brother a gift beyond all telling. His first impulse was to let death wash over him. He'd had it hard and unhappy for large swaths of his life and the few joys he had were tucked deep in his soul. He could go now and that would be okay with him. But he didn't. He took on the burden of what he knew was futile treatment in order to give his sons the full measure of his devotion to us: For you, I will do this because you need this from me. I don't need it, but you do and while it is in my power to give it to you I will.
Such love. Such love. Such love.
His words to me were, "I'll kick this can as far down this road as I can." And that was the good that could yet be done for us. And he did it. James Dickey had a handful of typewriters to show his devotion to life. My dad had rounds of chemo-therapy. It is all the same. Don't you fucking dare quit on your life, on this life. There is good that must be done and you are the only one who can do it. Even it takes a lifetime of struggle and your last breath to reveal it, some good may yet be done.
Now go. I'll send you the typewriters. Just ask.
* * *
Quidam tamen bene fieri.