Tuesday, May 26, 2009

`Life is Shorter Than Summer'

The father of the rabbi among my readers recently died. I offered my feeble e-mailed condolences and the rabbi replied:

“I was very lucky – the sadness is a measure of the blessing I suppose, and the blessing was extravagant, abundant. He was a wonderful man.”

These are the words of a generous, grateful spirit, one who recognizes sorrow as a barometer of human goodness – a reassuring paradox. The e-mail arrived while I was in the park with my younger sons on a sunny Memorial Day afternoon. They ran around the playground. I sat on a bench, smeared with sun-block, reading Emily Dickinson, including #1506 from The Complete Poems, dated “c. 1880”:

“Summer is shorter than any one –
Life is shorter than Summer –
Seventy Years is spent as quick
As an only Dollar –

“Sorrow -- now -- is polite -- and stays –
See how well we spurn him –
Equally to abhor Delight –
Equally retain him –”

For Dickinson all things contain their opposite. Like Thoreau, she relished paradox – a deeply religious gift. The first two lines make metaphysical if not mathematical sense. Rather unexpectedly, a rabbi makes an appearance in one of Dickinson’s poems, #433, the one that begins “Knows how to forget!” Here is the last of its six stanzas:

“If it be invention
It must have a Patent.
Rabbi of the Wise Book
Don't you know?”

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