A Modest Halloween Proposal

It sometimes seems clear if there is an afterlife it does not interfere with present life. But what is present? The light from our sun is already a little over eight seconds old. We sunbathe in the past, confident in a present we never quite seem to fully inhabit (physics explains it’s perfectly possible to split infinitives). Where then do we go? Maybe time is a question of physics, maybe of metaphysics – the things that may come after the physics.

The dead seem an extremely polite bunch. They do not intrude. Looking for them is like searching for aliens. We may feel their presence, approach them with the telescope of faith, but if they exist, somewhere-somehow, that life lies far far beyond the present five senses. To prove an afterlife, if we want to believe in ghosts and such, we must create a sense beyond our given five.

William Blake noticed angels out and about. Rilke claimed to have seen one. What is it about poets that make them easy prey for such notions? Wouldn’t it be a bit frightful if the first aliens the astronomers discover turn out to be previous earthlings? The problem with communicating with the dead may simply be the length of time their message takes to reach us. By the time the first message from the first dead reaches Earth, we may all be gone. What would the message say? Trick or Treat?

I take no issue with the dead. Nor am I looking forward to meeting any aliens. Let them keep their distance. My problem seems to be sugar: to wit, candy – the Halloween tradition (in these parts).

This year, instead of passing out candy, I propose to hand out poems. Short poems printed on three by five cards, maybe with a cartoon or drawing on one side of the card. I’ll drop a poem card into every little critter’s Halloween basket. No candy. No sugar.

But when I mentioned the idea to Susan, she said, “We’ll get our house egged for sure.”

“You think? With the cost of dairy these days?”

“And the parents will accuse you of poisoning their kids with poetry. Besides, Halloween cards are nothing new. And poetry, while sugar free, is still very high in carbs and calories, not to mention saturated and trans fats.”

So much for my proposal. I guess we’re sticking with candy.

Where Dylan Thomas meets Atul Gawande; or, Let Go Gently, for Here Comes the Night

If Atul Gawande had been the editor for Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” we might have gotten something like, “Let Go Gently, for Here Comes the Night,” the long and “The long, the long and lonely night night, night, night, night, night, night…” as Van Morrison sang with Them, fading away.

Atul Gawande, the Harvard Medical School professor, general and endocrine surgeon, and advisor to presidents, argues, in his latest New Yorker article, “Letting Go,” that Dylan Thomas’s famous poem might more efficiently and effectively have gone something like this:

Go gentle into that good night, Old age need not burn and rave at close of day; No need to Rage, to rage against the dying of the light. Wise men know dark is right, night is night, night is right, And they know whatever their words, those closest to them care. So wave bye-bye while you still can lift your hand, While you can still dance with your nurses, While you are still a wild man singing in the face of the sun, Do not grieve – grief is for those you leave behind. Grief is rage spent. Go, go gentle into that good night.

And maybe he’d throw in some stuff about shooting stars and eyes and then end with a prayer: “…my father, now brought gracefully down from the sad heights of the elevated hospital bed, all the tubes pulled out, the IV’s withdrawn, and you back in a warm pair of faded blue jeans, back home, back in the saddle again…while we with our mild tears fear and pray, go gentle into that good night; don’t ‘Rage, [don’t] rage against the dying of the light.’”

Gawande’s thesis is simple, clear, difficult but delivered with clarity: we need to have this discussion, to juxtapose Dylan Thomas’s poem against the raw night with the one now descending outside our window, the one the doctors can’t help us avoid, for they are not gods, and besides, like the gods of old, they make mistakes.

Dylan Thomas wrote his poem about his father dying just a short time before his own premature death. I’m not sure if Dylan raged against the dying of the light, but he sure seems to have worked it while he could. Yet, perhaps this poem is his own rage against his own hand he sees reaching for the light switch.

Listen to Dylan Thomas reading his poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.”