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It was 1880, the hardest year in the life of Ivan Ilyich, the protagonist in The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), a novella written by Leo Tolstoy. Its depiction of illness morphing into the shock of death has become a classic. Its dynamics find resonance in today’s experience of dying/death, my own, as well.

An injury from a fall and the persistent foul taste in his mouth compel Ivan to seek medical help, but none of the three specialists concur on the cause of his symptoms. Instead, they prescribe ineffective tonics that exacerbate his obsessive thoughts and worsen his pain.

Months pass with Ivan’s body wasting atop his sofa, his face to its back. Slowly, the specter of his death surfaces, and with it, more obsessing for the life he once had: Chief Magistrate of the High Court, bridge player, husband and father, in name only. From isolation and loneliness spur even more painful questions, all unanswered.

Mercifully, two hours before his passing, Ivan hears a different voice from his psyche questioning his fear of death. In its place, there is light. “So that’s what it is! What joy!” exclaims Ivan Ilyich. “Death is finished. It is no more.” Thus he passes.

Within Ivan’s experience, I saw my obsessive thinking, until grounded within the discipline of CPA’s Twelve Steps. His search for a fix for his symptoms recalled my own doctoring and disappointments for years. His depression, self-pity, loneliness, fears, sleepless nights, also mirrored my own, prior to my signing on to hospice eight months ago.

Unlike Ian Ilyich, however, contentment supports the waiting for my true home from whence I came, over eighty-four years ago. Yet, I’ve still much to learn … if allotted the time.

 

Fluff! was my initial reaction to the opening chapters of Helen Simonson’s comedy of manners, The Summer Before the War (2016). It is 1914, set in the coastal village of Rye, East Sussex, England.

Slowly unfolds a view of waning Edwardian society, with its opulent mores defining attitudes and behaviors of its residents. Comic touches abound, exposing their eccentricities and gossip and prejudices. Detailed descriptions of feathered hats and gowns, the annual Hops Festival, the Fete Parade, the society funeral for the only son of the Earl North, trench warfare, the grimy feel of railway stations, and so much more, afford texture of place. Like other comedies of errors, dialogue is precise, stilted, disguised, but at times compelling.

Only when the voices of matron Agatha Kent and the village’s new Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash, lay bare the gamey shenanigans around them was I compelled to read on; and of the later voices of the servant Abigail and the gypsies, as well. And I’m glad I did. Also affording context to this novel is the suffragette movement, the changing role of women in society, and homosexuality. I grew to care for Agatha and Beatrice, both venturing into vital experiences that deepen their sense of woman and quicken the worlds of others.

What follows is the rude interruption of the village’s predictable world with the onset of the Great War—Their summer of balmy channel breezes was not supposed to be like this.

I pray that this is not the summer before the war. Given rains that freshen greening leaves and lawns, I hope such waterings will l dampen fires of global discord and enhance critical changes confronting us—with God’s help. No one needs another war…

 

 

“I began to look more closely, not at things but at a world closer to myself, looking from an inner place to one further within, instead of clinging to the movement of sight toward the world outside.” So wrote Jacques Lusseyran, accidently blinded when eight years of age, in his memoir And There Was Light (1963).

Newly sightless, he directed close attention toward the pressure of his surroundings—people, places, things—enveloping his person. Ever so slowly, he felt their impress, even their color that quickened his sensitive mind and allowed the world to come to him for recognition.

Despite bouts of exhaustion at the outset, his new way of seeing served him well—especially later as a teenager when he excelled in his Braille studies and friendships, headed up a youth resistance group in Nazi-occupied Paris, and survived Buchenwald’s hell.

Disciplined attention underscored these engagements, an attention that grounded him in the present moment. With his God, he watched on-going creation, his love and joy deepening with each breath.

Jacques Lusseyran’s practice of attention, from deep inwardness, inspires me to do similarly, despite sporadic efforts in the past. True, I’ve come a long way since signing on to hospice for my terminal illness, but my demise does not seem imminent. There’s still more time to practice, to participate in the wrapping up of a long life, unlike that of Jacques Lusseyran, killed in an auto accident, when forty-seven.

Yet, I’m grateful for Lusseyran’s practice, now informing my discipline of Twelve Step living, honing my spirit for what is to come.

 

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