A Northman's Reveries

Pondering Life, Death, and Other Imponderables


William Saroyan, author of The Human Comedy, once observed, “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” There wasn’t; he died in 1981.
It appears no exceptions are made, though there are some wealthy types who are currently investing heavily in bio-engineering and cyborg technology in hopes of becoming the exception. Which makes me wonder if they have really thought through the implications of living forever.  As the Anglo-English novelist Susan Ertz (d. 1985.) noted, "Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon." 
Admittedly, for many people the thought of not-being lies behind their fear of dying. To this, Mark Twain (d. 1910) offered a reasonable and realistic perspective: "I do not fear death,” he said. “I had been dead for billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience." Ah, the down-to-earth wisdom of Mark Twain! If we can just get past the idea of eternal extinction, it all seems rather minor. Think about it: You’ve been “alive” for what, 30, 40, maybe 70 years, compared to the four and half billion years this planet has managed without you? The universe itself is approximately 13.8 billion years old—we say approximately because back then there was no accurate way of counting days, the sun being created only 4.6 billion years ago—so we may safely conclude that the universe will probably continue on without our puny 70 or 80 years on earth. 

I prefer the thinking of the Stoic philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (d. 180) who said it isn't death we should fear but not having lived. His Meditations still make for thoughtful reading 2,000 years later.

I suspect most of us come to his or her own position on the mortality issue, whether we frame it in words or just intuitively sense it, and in that way we make our personal peace with the entwined mysteries of life and death, and with our own enigmatic participation in that mystery. Here's mine (d: currently unknown):

                                         I Love Beginnings
I was born just a few hours before the new year of 1948. 

So, from the start, I have always loved beginnings.

And yes, I know the pre-packaging of time into "years" and "months" and "days" is contrived and artificial, 

based on an imperfect calendar no less.

(Leap year has always struck me as cheating.) 

Yet there is, I think, within our humanity this love of beginnings,

 for each holds the potential for renewal and reinvention,

 possibly redemption, and maybe getting it right this time.

The journey that is one's life has many beginnings and many endings—

it's not always easy to tell the difference--

and if I am granted a conscious dying, then I plan to greet Death 

with open arms, telling him, "It's okay. I love beginnings."


First posted: June 12, 2020

A Prayer for Today



Lord, save me from my lower self,

from my petty, vengeful, vindictive self,

my angry, anxious, hurting
and hurtful self.

I know I'm vulnerable today--

I ask, protect me from myself.





First posted: February 14, 2020

Early morning thoughts of Donald (“Don”) Trump in a parallel universe



Another day starting,

and glad he was still here to see it,

though some might not think it much of a life.

Nothing splashy, never made a lot of money,

never became president of the United States.

But then he’d never wanted to be president,

and money never’d been that important to him.

There’d always been enough.


He had the love of a good woman, three fine children,

and now grandchildren coming on like gangbusters—

his whole life he’d loved only one woman.

Oh, he’d been tempted, sure—Sadie at the supermarket, maybe—

but that was just another one of those silly-second dreams,

like being rich n’ famous, that maybe look good ‘til you think them through.

Certainly nothing you’d waste a lifetime chasing after.


Some things he regretted.

Wished he’d had more confidence, wished his father’d been more proud of him.

Yeah, that would have been nice.

Never could get the hang of this social media thing.

He and the wife were on Facebook so they could keep up

with the kids and grandkids.

Not much to share 'bout himself.

If people needed him, there was always the phone,

or they’d more ’n likely just drop by.


He’d always tried to be a good man, someone his children’d be proud of.

When he was gone, that’s probably how people would remember him:

as a good man, a decent man who cared about his family, his church and his community,

one to count on to help when help was needed.

At least he never made a fool of himself,

was never knowingly unkind to another.


He was now closer to the end than the beginning, he knew.

Hair thinning, body sagged.

Lacked the strength in his arms he once had.

Couldn’t run any longer—that’d surprised him one day—

legs just wouldn’t move like they used to.

But then life had slowed down, too.

Fewer places to run to these days.


Yes, to others it probably didn’t seem much of a life, he supposed,

but it’d been enough for him,

an honest life where he could look any man in the eye.

He’d be ready when time came to say good-bye.


Until then, he had another day to live, and best get to it.

He looked out on the early spring morning, nicely warming,

drank the last of his coffee and got up from the table,

silently kissed his wife’s forehead as she read the newspaper

(“That damn’d fool in the White House,” she muttered)

grabbed his cap and went outside to make his garden great again.



[First posted: November 17, 2019]

Admit it, you'll miss him


And now Sharpiegate!

C'mon, admit it: You're going to miss Trump when he's gone. W's Bush-isms weren't half as entertaining, and of course Obama with all his charisma and class, integrity and intelligence was no fun. It will probably mean the end of late night talk shows. Editorial cartoonists will need to apply for unemployment. It'll be the end of democracy as we've known it these past three years. Just reminds us to appreciate what we've got in the moment.






[First posted: September 7, 2019]

W.S. Merwin (1927-2019)



Send me out into another life
                lord because this one is growing faint
     I do not think it goes all the way

                      --W.S. Merwin



In W.S. Merwin we admired not only the poetry but also the poet.

Which unfortunately can't be said for a lot of poets.

So many couldn't live up to the beauty and profoundness of their own words.

But then, truth be told, neither can I.

Alas, I am better on paper than in person.

...which I suspect is why many of us write.



[First posted: July 15, 2019]



          I needed my mistakes
    in their own order

to get me here

           --W.S. Merwin



Glad to be alive? Yes.

But it was a rough road getting to this point.

Not sure I'd want to make the trip again.





[First posted: June 17, 2019]

To a Friend Dying



I received your email, and for the past two days
I've been trying to think what to say.
Words fail me--As you can well appreciate,
an uncomfortable state of affairs for a writer.

Yes, I will miss you.
Yes, I am sad at the prospect of your death.
Yes, I am grateful for our friendship 
and how it has enriched my life (and my writing)
over these many years.

But the words sound so trite when put down on paper,
so inadequate to the occasion, the anticipated loss of
a valued friend.

And then this morning, when out walking on my hillside,
I noticed the first signs of summer sliding into autumn:
One of the sugar maples is just beginning to turn,
signaling the changing of the seasons.

And once again I found in nature that peace
that stills the mind and fills the heart.
If I could, I would send you that peace.
As it is, I can only leave you with my sense
of gratitude for the many moments we have shared,
and a sad gladness that our paths crossed--
several times--on our separate journeys.

Godspeed on yours now. I will eat an orange in your honor
and whisper your name to the wind.

I guess that's what I wanted to say.
Farewell, my friend.




[First posted: August 22, 2018]

Thanksgiving Prayer for a Nation Divided


















 O Lord,

We're grateful that we can come together as a family,
united in our love in spite of the misguided political views held
by some of our members gathered with us here today.

We hold hands around this table,
putting aside our differences,
confident that Your wisdom
will help them see the error of their ways.

We give thanks for the bounty of this table
and for our nation rich in its blessings,
now threatened by the idiotic policies being proposed
by a certain political party who shall remain nameless
because we have put politics aside on this day of Thanksgiving.
Really, you would not believe the asinine things they're considering--


Oh, sorry, Lord. Margaret reminds me
that I can get a bit carried away in defense of
truth and justice and, heck, just basic common sense.

We ask that You bless this great nation of ours in the year coming
as we must choose between sanity and 
the catastrophic alternative offered by the other party.

We pray this in the name of our lord and savior, Jesus Christ,
who we know shares the same values as half of us sitting here at this table.


...Margaret, why aren't there any knives on the table?




[First posted: November 26, 2015]

The Origin of All Religions?


















Here might lie the source of all religions:
In such a sunset that takes one's breath away,
that pulls us out of ourselves,
intimating we are part of something far grander
than our tiny, temporary lives,
part of something beyond the mind's intellectual reach.

Perhaps our ancestors took it from there,
creating a God or gods or spirits,
to somehow account for this majesty and mystery
we sense but cannot explain,
yet feel we somehow must.




[First posted: November 7, 2015]


What I'd like to ask my father now











I would like to ask him what it was like to die that day.
Was he aware of it? Did he have any sense or intuition on that bright and beautiful May morning that This Was It? That his life had come to its end?

Or did it take him by surprise?
Or was one part of him taken by surprise, while another part knew, perhaps had always known, that it would be this day, this time, this place.

By the accounts we received, he went quickly. Collapsed to the ground. Heart attack. Sudden. And he was gone.

The location was fitting. Up in the lake country he loved. He couldn't have chosen a more fitting place to die. (Did you choose it, Dad?)

He was excited that last morning, Mom remembered. There'd been a landslide on the cliffs overlooking Lake Merwin, next to the family property. He wanted to get up there to see it and urged her to hurry and get dressed so they could leave. She wanted to put on her make-up.

"Oh, you don't need make-up. You look beautiful to me," he told her. "You've always looked beautiful to me."

It was unusual for him, that kind of compliment, and Mom remembered it. (Was that why you said it? Those words, were they your parting gift to her? They would sustain her for what lay ahead, she who never liked being alone.)

Years later I'd use them in my Tokyo novel. The ghost husband says to the old woman in her dreams: "My little wife, you are beautiful to me. You have always been beautiful to me."

As deaths go, it was a good death, immediate and over. Nothing fancy. No struggle. No grasping for one more day, or one more breath. No need.

It was a death worthy of you, Dad. A man who died at peace because that's pretty much the way he lived. Nothing left unfinished or unspoken. You'd said what needed to be said, what Mom needed to hear.
And then you could leave.





[First posted: May 26, 2015]