This year, in addition to losing my mother, I also grieved a few days later with a friend for the loss of hers. When the father of another friend passed away unexpectedly, I was sad because he and I, despite our age difference, shared a connection as if we had known each other in another life. Then, I was shocked by the death of a fellow climber. I had not yet recovered when another friend died suddenly in his sleep.
Also this year, my friend and hiking partner lost his year-long battle with cancer. As I promised him, I sat many hours in prayer and meditation. Three months later, my teacher and friend for 30 years, Doctor Jean-Francois Dumon, also died. Only two days earlier we had a warm and lengthy conversation about COVID, life, disease, and even bronchoscopy.
Seven deaths in one year require a lot of mourning. I hike less than I should, but I appreciate beauty in all its forms despite the lockdowns and limitations brought on by the pandemic. Unfortunately, I do not venture into the mountains, nor have I the luxury of being surrounded by family or many close relations with whom to share feelings and emotions. Diving into my books, however, I enjoy the determined sensibility of the American poet, Wallace Stevens. I find some comfort in the essays of Stephen Levine, Ram Dass, Romanian-born French philosopher, Emile Cioran, and others. I also appreciate the magical genius of José Saramago and the strangely universal truths of Portuguese author and poet, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935).
Opening Pessoa’s masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet, to any page at random allows an exploration of one’s sense of being. I was incited to read more of his work, including writings by some of the 72 heteronyms Pessoa used to express his fractured self. One of them, Odes, is by the fictitious middle-aged, poet-doctor, Ricardo Reis, whose poems are composed in the style of the Roman lyric poet Horace; a style resembling the Archaic Greek.
A more contemporary Portuguese author, José Saramago, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998. He is famous for his novel, Blindness, but he also wrote, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a book inspired by Pessoa’s above-named heteronym. Saramago opens with this quote from Ricardo Reis (Pessoa): “Wise is he who is satisfied with the spectacle of the world.”
Later, Saramago’s words might be a prescription for those of us who grieve. He writes: “We mourn the man whom death takes from us, and the loss of his miraculous talent and the grace of his human presence, but only the man do we mourn, for destiny endowed his spirit and creative powers with a mysterious beauty that cannot perish.”
Nearing the end of this first year of The Age of COVID, my thoughts are with all those who find themselves contemplating the spectacle of the world.
- José Saramago. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. e Editorial Caminho, Lisboa, 1984.
- Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. Penguin Books, Richard Zenith, transl. 2001.
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