Living Presence

“If you can bring nothing to this place
but your carcass, keep out.”

William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams

The poet William Carlos Williams ends his great poem, Dedication for a Plot of Ground, with these strong and humorous lines. The poem is written for his grandmother and chronicles her life and hides from none of her struggles. The plot of ground is where she spent her last 15 years of life living. It was a home after a life where she defended her boys and…

herself here against thieves,
storms, sun, fire,
against flies, against girls
that came smelling about, against
drought, against weeds, storm-tides,
neighbors, weasels that stole her chickens,
against the weakness of her own hands,
against the growing strength of
the boys, against wind, against
the stones, against trespassers,
against rents, against her own mind.

Williams’ grandmother lived a full life. Not an illustrious life, but a hard life. She saw her only daughter die, was twice widowed, moved around in Puerto Rico and New York as needed, finally settling on this plot of land she made one of her sons purchase for her.

I’ve been pondering lives lately, strange as that sounds. Maybe it is the death of George Floyd that raised this question or the book I’m reading on the lives of women killed by Jack the Ripper. These are not innocent people in the sense that they lived blameless lives. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” Floyd had several run-ins with the law before turning to his faith, but in the end, was possibly making a mistake. The women killed by Jack the Ripper, only a couple of which had spent any time as prostitutes, were women in tough circumstances who also made poor choices. What they hold in common and what I wrote about last week is we only know them in their death.

When my six-year-old Oliver died, it was the taking of an innocent life. He didn’t even have the chance to make the mistakes other people make, which is why the death of children strikes us as particularly horrendous. When I talk about Oliver I don’t talk much about his death, I talk about his life. I talk about his joy in living, his plethora of bad jokes, his love of Legos and Pokemon, his sharp wit, his hugs, and his love.

Which brings me back to Williams’ poem about his grandmother. The “plot of ground” is not her burial place, but where she lived. “This plot of ground…is dedicated to the living presence” of his grandmother. He is not remembering her in death but celebrating her “living presence.” Not because she lived some exemplary life, but because she lived.

I’ve said before that we don’t mourn a death, but a life. A life gone too soon or a life fully lived. A common phrase in the grief world is that when a parent dies we mourn the past, when a spouse dies we mourn the present, and when a child dies we mourn the future. The common denominator in all this is that we mourn the life. The living presence. And we should celebrate and embrace those lives instead of focusing on their death.

Part of that embrace of someone’s life is embracing all of it. George Floyd was not a perfect person. Some of the women killed by Jack the Ripper took to drinking to escape from the poverty they found themselves in. None of that excuses their murders or makes their life worth less than any of ours. They did not deserve to die. Nor do six-year-old boys killed by cancer.

We do better a celebrating this “living presence” when someone lives what we see as a full life. If a 94-year-old man dies today we will not focus on his death but his full life. But every life is full! Whether it is lived only in the womb, for six years, for 46 years, or 94, lives are full. So we should celebrate the “living presence” of people, their joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, love found and love lost — in other words, their stories.

And as Williams says, if all you can bring to their living presence is your carcass, keep out. All people, all stories, are valuable and deserve the honor of our attention.

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