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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Blackbird in the Church

Blackbird in the Church

My friend and teaching colleague Charlie Beall was a fist of a man. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much anger in one place, or such style in managing it. Before his damaged heart finally burst at a football game—burst with pride, perhaps, as his son caught a long, touchdown pass—Charlie and I spent many hours talking about philosophy and politics and the women we loved. And we always left shaking our heads and saying “I don’t know,” with Charlie usually a few beers heavier, and both of us glad as hell that we knew each other.

The hole in Charlie’s heart left his beautiful wife Mary, his year-old son Stephen, his two other children Sandy and David, and a church full of family members and friends, including me, with a hole in our lives. At the house, after the funeral, David came over to me and gave me an uncharacteristic hug, saying, “Thanks for coming.” Then he tightened his hold suddenly and, almost in another voice, said, “Please, don’t leave,” and I sensed that this plea was really for his father, but it was too late for that, and so I held him, mute with the nothing to say that death always leaves us with.

I remember only vaguely the call from Mary telling me that Charlie was dead. I made hurried arrangements and drove to Gainesville, seized by memories and the usual guilt and regrets over not having said this or that, not having spent more time. When I got into town, Mary asked me if I would be part of the service, offer a eulogy of some sort, and of course, I said I would, knowing that Charlie was the last person in the world who would want to be eulogized. He would have found the idea humorous.

A teacher of philosophy and literature, Charlie loved Auden and Yeats, and had a special fondness for Yeats’s piercing line: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes. What more is there to say?” This verse seemed a fitting introduction to my comments about Charlie, and as I recited it, the church fell into a muffled silence almost like the silence one hears under water. I confessed that when I had met Charlie, I didn’t like him. That was back in 1973, and I was teaching an introductory course in philosophy at the Hotel Thomas campus of Santa Fe College in Gainesville. It was my first term out of university, and I was still bristling with the defensiveness that graduate study of philosophy instills. Among the texts that I had chosen for my course was Krishnamurti’s Freedom from the Known. Charlie walked into our common office and noticed the book in my hand. “What’s that?” he asked, grinning, “Freedom to Be Ignorant?” And with a smirk and dismissive wave of his hand that practically became his trademark, his conversational signature, he let me know what he thought of me and my book and my philosophy, and walked off.

A man like this is not hard to hate straightaway, and at faculty meetings after that, Charlie and I always looked at each other sideways, if we looked at all. He viewed me as one of those quasi-mystical philosophers who have a problem cooperating with the law of gravity; I saw him as cynical and complacent and belligerent, and so it went for about a year.

Then, one day, Charlie approached me. At least I think it was Charlie. The form was the same, but everything else had changed. His voice had dropped from his half-clenched teeth into his heart, and he asked if we could get together over coffee, which we did, though clearly something else was brewing; I wasn’t sure what it was, but I wanted to find out. At a local café, Charlie was soon telling me of the feelings of unrest and compromise he had teaching at Santa Fe, his past marriage, which was only legally over, and the vivisecting conflict of loving a woman who was, as Proust puts it, not his type. I listened for a couple of hours while before my eyes, a colleague changed from an adversary to a friend.

As you can imagine, Charlie was not well-liked in the department, a fact he would have found entertaining. A former soldier in Korea and dean of men at Emory, he had long ago lost his tolerance for nonsense and bureaucratic swagger, and had an irritating talent for cutting through officialese to the jugular of any issue. In Korea, under enemy fire, he crawled through a snow-covered landing zone to retrieve a box of supplies that had just been air-dropped. When he reached the box, he found that it had split open, and he could see that it was filled with Fig Newtons—frozen Fig Newtons—which he commenced to eat while tracer bullets whistled over him on their way to killing someone. This image of eating frozen Fig Newtons in a combat zone stayed with him for the rest of life, a fitting image of the banality and raucous idiocy of war, and somehow a point-blank metaphor of human existence itself.

Death had spared him in Korea, but as always, won the chess game in the end, and now it had taken him beyond the last wall, where we would share no more beer or coffee or philosophy. The church reminded me of another I had been in ten years earlier, when I played the guitar and sang at Charlie and Mary’s wedding. There was one song in particular that Charlie loved—Blackbird, from the Beatles’ White Album. I had played it then, at his wedding, and now felt that this song somehow belonged to the sad thing that had happened, that it marked the coming and going of a marriage and a life, and I arranged to borrow a guitar so I could play it for Charlie again, not knowing, of course, if the dead can hear the music of the world, but hoping they might. The lyrics arced through the soundless church like birds stalled in the air, fluttering, looking for a place to light:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.
All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to be free.

And at the bridge:

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly,
Into the light of the dark black night.

It is a strange wall that we pass through, this dark black night, this death. Maybe it has no other side. Socrates says that it may be the greatest good that can happen to us. I don’t know. I know that one second, a person is there, and the next, gone, wrenched away by decree of a court that hears no appeal. The wall of death is always far off, at least in our assumptions, receding the way a horizon recedes as one approaches it. Oddly, this faraway death is at the same time, ever as close as a breath, a swerve on the highway, a touchdown pass. It’s only a question of which breath.

But this dying that we have to do, we don’t have to do all at once. Life gives us lots of opportunities to practice, if by dying we mean a willing walk into the unknown. Maybe this mysterious wall that we fear our whole life would reveal a little of its secret side if we questioned the obvious. What is the obvious, here? That we don’t know whether the awareness that says “I” in us survives the dissolution of the body. That we don’t know if there is another side to this dreadful wall of being. And that it is this not knowing that fills us with dread.

What do we know, then? We know that this fear of death is a fear of not living, of not being. The mind stutters trying to voice this: How can I not be? How can Charlie be no more? And, of course, there is a horror hiding in the logic here, for “I” cannot not be—it is inconceivable. But this is precisely the shudder—that death might extinguish the very “I” whose non-being is inconceivable. In the face of such considerations, logic spins into itself, the inner structures of the psyche tremble, and maybe we’d better just detour over to the refrigerator or push a button on the TV remote and switch from this whirlpool of thinking to some mind-arresting sitcom.

But is this fear of not being really about physically dying? I don’t think so. Even when, as a boy, I almost drowned in a swimming pool, I knew, somehow, knew in the moments of struggling under the water, that my death had not touched me yet. Not-being, on the other hand, is a familiar theme. Long ago, I learned how to look the other way when I felt my life rising within me, to leave my body and its emotional protests in a mad rush to meet someone else’s expectations. This loss of oneself to another, to one’s mate or an intimidating supervisor or the government or the church or the seductiveness of an advertising campaign—there is a dying here, a sneak preview of not-being. We should never make the mistake of thinking that a person isn’t dead just because he’s still walking around.

This image of the walking dead frightens me more than the specter of mourners taking their leave of my final resting place, with heads bowed and clods of cemetery soil falling from their shoes—not that I might die, but that I might not live. Here is the sting of death that you asked about, dear Paul: The grave is victorious when we bury ourselves alive in a life that is not our own, when we kill our feelings, our sorrow, and so, our joy while we are here, in the carnival prison house of time. The death we rightly fear is the death we already have died.

There is, of course, the instinctive, animal fear of physical death that surges in the cells now and again, but this fear preserves life; it doesn’t get in the way of living, which in its fullest sense, means far more than merely the state of not yet being deceased. Maybe this is in part why I didn’t feel overly sad at Charlie’s dying. I knew that he had lived, that his life had been a rodeo of living, and that in this sense, he did not die before his time. He knew that daring to live was more important than being comfortable or popular or even safe, and his life was not made easier for this, but it was made more a life. As he wrote in one of his poems, “Getting up in the morning is a death-defying act.” Few men live their poetry so courageously and so well.

Not surprising, then, that the Beatles’ song should seem such a fitting statement of Charlie’s life and death. Flying with broken wings, seeing with sunken eyes, living each day with a little death—these images show us how to affirm the fundamental contradictions of being human. Letting go of lovers we never wanted to lose, feeling our own death when we survive a friend or relative, admitting our sadness over what the world has become and the bittersweet joy of what it might yet become—these are some ways we might bow to our walls, honor the little deaths they require of us all our life. And still, we can sing, we can fly, we can be among those who die at the right time, as Charlie did. We can give ourselves to death enough to really live, rather than live cowering by a wall, living in death until death takes us.

I keep coming to this. Thirty years after my grandmother’s death, I was able, finally, to feel the loss, the sorrow, to let that blackbird fly, to let it into the church and sit there while it flapped about the room like urgent words being released from parentheses. Fitfully awake in the middle of the night, I dragged myself out of bed and over to the computer, where I typed the goodbye I had never said to her. I felt as though Mama were sitting behind me, then, smiling softly as I typed. Soon, she was joined by my other grandparents, an uncle, an aunt—the dear ones who had disappeared so many years ago, when, even then, I was too vanished to feel their vanishing. I wept while I wrote, and the tears fell onto my hands. When the feeling was spent, I found that it wasn’t really so hard to say goodbye. And as I let go, a part of me came alive that had been dead for decades.

There is a death-in-life that comes over us when we’re unwilling to let go into our grief or fear or anger, and this wall built against pain keeps out our happiness, as well. Such dying prevents our living. Edwin Markham describes this sorry state in his poem, The Man with the Hoe, which tells of someone whose life has become like that of an ox, a beast of burden, yoked to his days, merely existing:

Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?

Ironically, if we learn to die while living, our lives come alive. Only a man or woman who grasps this, who thinks in a “marrowbone,” as Yeats puts it, can eat Fig Newtons under fire in the snow.

Beyond the dreaded wall of death, then, there is no drop off the horizon as the ancients feared, and who knows?—perhaps all our journeys, as T.S. Eliot writes, bring us full circle. In the end, it may not matter. But it matters now. We don’t have to know where we’re going to get there well. And if the whole shebang ends with a whimper and a slide into eternal night, what of it? For the time being, the blackbird is not only in the church, he’s flying. In the dead of night, with sunken eyes and broken wings, surrounded by walls. He’s flying, and he’s singing.