Further Reflections on Death & Fire
I’m usually somewhat solemn around this time of year, sitting quietly at my desk listening to the quiet rain and even quieter fog outside my window, enjoying the damp quiet day in my own little way as my not-at-all-damp-thank-you cat quietly looks on….
But not this year. This year, something’s gotten into me. A bit of trickster spirit, maybe. A bit of fire. I find that I can’t sit still and write solemn, poetical things. (Which is a problem, because I have at least three deadlines for solemn, poetical things due to various editors who have always before been able to rely on me to be solemn and poetical on schedule.) Instead, my fingers want to tap out snark — while my heart quails like a small fat bird in the underbrush (you know, like a pheasant) at the thought of being thought merely snarky.
It’s a little like being in love. Except from the other side. And it’s been going on since March…
Which is when I reread Terry Pratchett’s book, The Last Hero, which begins like this:
‘Ah, well, life goes on,’ people say when someone dies. But from the point of view of the person who has just died, it doesn’t. It’s the universe that goes on. Just as the deceased was getting the hang of everything it’s all whisked away, by illness or accident or, in one case, a cucumber. Why this has to be is one of the imponderables of life, in the face of which people either start to pray… or become really, really angry.
Since March, which is when Sir Terry Pratchett died, a part of me has become really, really angry. Another part of me can’t stop praying.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about Pratchett this past year. Too much time for someone who is usually rather disdainful of folks who go gaga over celebrities and authority figures. Too much time for someone who would never in a million years call herself a “pop culture Pagan.” Too much time for it to be anything but love.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Commander Samuel Vimes, too, wondering why I relate to him so strongly as a character. Vimes has a Beast inside him that is capable of killing, something capable of terrible hatred and violence and fantasies of revenge. What makes him a good man (and a great character) is that he keeps it chained, he holds it back, he calls on it when he needs it and then he reigns it in. He makes friends with the Dark.
I don’t think I have that kind of Beast in me. Lots of people like to think they do, but I don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hurt someone, not deliberately, not just to see them suffer. On my honor, I am not a violent man. I’ve been a self-described pacifist ever since I read Gandhi when I was twelve. (And I remember the night my best friend’s dad got annoyed with my idealistic anti-war ramblings and tried to take this snotty pre-teen down a peg by growling, “Yeah, well, Gandhi’s fucking dead.” And I remember wondering what role models had been dead for Gandhi. And why that matters.)
If there is a Beast in me, it’s not one of violence or hatred… it’s a Venusian lioness, languishing in the tall shadows of the grass.
And I wonder: why am I so afraid of what that love might do? Is it that society has taught women that our love is dangerous and destructive? Is it our patriarchal culture that fears the raw vulnerability of passion and the inconveniences it might cause? That carefully packages eros to sell off as commodified “Grrl Powr,” so that when we most want to be taken seriously we find ourselves dismissed, reduced to the stereotype of reactionary adolescent irresponsibility?
So I wonder, what if I stopped being so afraid — what if, instead, I got angry? Ah, but it is irresponsible, it is dangerous. I don’t think you understand. I love you. I love you like a serial killer who wants to rip you open and paint portraits of delicate flowers with your blood because I really, honestly believe with all my heart that you are more beautiful on the inside. I love you with a love that would first embarrass you and then make you feel rather worried, until eventually you stopped returning my phone calls. These things happen, I know.
Second person narration is a dangerous thing. Like the lion in the grass who has been stalking you, watching you, and knows that if she comes too close you will start to run. If I tell you I think you’re beautiful, you will not believe me, you will think there’s something wrong with me that I could be so wrong about you. Or you will think I’m a liar, because no one who loves you would also analyze you, no one who loves you would be okay with there being so much blood. (Or worse, you’ll think it’s about sex. “As if that’s all you can do with something beautiful, / as if that’s what it means to govern your life by it.” Gods, wouldn’t it be easier if it were just about sex?)
That’s why I’m sarcastic. That’s why I stay home most days listening to the damp, quiet rain doing my best to be solemn. That’s why every once in awhile I get defensive about idealists and say things that someone, somewhere, is bound to take the wrong way. That’s why I stand with my fists clenched and my arms crossed tight across my chest every time you go to hug me. There’s a lot going on in here that you don’t know about. It isn’t all about you. (But sometimes it is.)
So I’ve been thinking about Pratchett a lot this year, trying to learn from him and his life and his work and his death. Trying to learn how to walk the line between “sell out” and “obscure and unpaid,” between “tactful” and “passive aggressive,” between “takes herself too seriously” and “just doing it for the attention.” How to be professional in a world where “professional” means we all agree not to make fun of each other’s neckties or be honest about our pain. Trying to learn how to make friends with the terrible Light, how to make it useful.
In my new home office (which I am calling the Rather Yellow Withdrawing Room), next to my altar to Brighid, I now also have an altar to Sir Terry Pratchett as an honored role model and Ancestor of Spirit. On the one hand, Brighid stands with a sheaf of wheat in her hands and a fire in her head. On the other, there is the hourglass, the huge fake ruby, the bottle of booze, all those symbols of what can distract us and steal us away from the work….
…and below, the lit candle, and above, the sprig of lilac. That I might always remember the beloved dead, and the anger that arises from love.