“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Our Minds Are Not Our Own, Part Four

My great-great-grandfather was a newspaperman.  He worked on, published, or owned, about half a dozen newspapers in Northern California and the Nevada Territory from the 1850s until his death in 1897.  His death, from heart failure, was sudden, and the city where he lived, Tuscarora, Nevada, felt his loss deeply.  As the newspaper account of his death remarked on the day after the funeral, “seldom has a larger or more sincere  concourse of people assembled to pay their last respects to a citizen as that which gathered yesterday.”  His obituary not only praises his many virtues, as one would expect, but also gives a well-rounded description of his character, rich in details as to his manner, his habits, and his affable temper.

But his obituary then goes beyond this account of the individual man and expands to a philosophical view of human mortality.  I cannot but think that the ideas given here were my great-great-grandfather’s, not only because they are part of his obituary but also because that obituary was most likely written by one of his sons:

"None can say what the future will bring forth. Today we dream of futures, for "hope springs eternal in the human breast." Tomorrow we lay still and cold in death, and the places which knew us shall know us no more.

Generation after generation have felt as we do now, that their lives were as active as our own. The heavens will be as bright over our graves as they are around our paths. Yet a little while and all this will have happened. The throbbing heart will be stilled and we be at rest. Our funeral will wend its way and the prayers will be said, and we will be left in the darkness and silence of the tomb.

And it may be for a time we will be spoken of, but as the things of life creep on, our names will be forgotten. Days will move on, and laughter be heard in the room where we died, and then eyes that mourned for us be dried and animated with joy, and even our children will cease to think of us and remember to lisp our names no more. ‘Tis better so, else the world would be borne down under the burden of grief and woe. 

Let there be life that bears no stain of reproach for an evil deed done or an opportunity missed to extend a helping had to the distressed, downtrodden or miserable, and secure in the record of a stainless life, may we

'Go not as the quarry slave at night, 
Scourged to his dungeon; but sustained and soothed 
By an unfaltering trust, approach our graves 
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch 
About him and lies down to peaceful dreams'"

What I find particularly interesting in this view of our mortality is that it is so thoroughly classical (i.e. Stoic) and so thoroughly un-Christian.  And in addition to the Greco-Roman philosophy underlying this view, I also detect a very Northern, i.e., Scandinavian, tone to the imagery.  (My great-great-grandfather’s parents immigrated to New York state from Wales.) 

I am reminded of the Venerable Bede’s metaphor for our life:  he likens it to a bird who flies into the Mede Hall during a winter night, circles in the warmth of the fire, feeds on scraps dropped to the floor, and soon flies out again into the storm.  

Our lives are but a brief stay in warmth and comfort before we depart again into the dark and the cold.  I confess that this view feels more truthful to me than the Christian Heaven and Hell (the one very bright and the other very hot.)  And reading this obituary makes it seem as though my melancholy take on things might come naturally to me as an inheritance from my forefathers.

The lack of Christian imagery of a heavenly afterlife is even more striking since I recently learned that this man’s father was often called upon to preach on Sunday mornings to the men in the mining camps of California during the 1850s.  What on earth could those sermons have been like?


Like my great-great-grandfather, my father was a writer.  And now, here am I.  


The last time I saw my father was a couple of days before his release from the Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek.  On the following day, I would be flying back to New York, where I lived and worked.

My father and mother had been on their way to Rio de Janeiro aboard a cruise ship, one of the Princess ships operated by the venerable P&O line, when my father suffered congestive heart failure.  When they arrived at Rio, my father was transferred from the ship to a hospital where he stayed for three weeks, until the doctors were confident that he could endure the long flight back of San Francisco.

When I first heard of his collapse, I started planning to fly to Rio.  My mother, however, assured me that he was being given excellent care and that she, for whom a second bed had been brought into his private room, was well taken care of, too.  So by the time they returned to California and I booked a flight to visit them, over a month had passed since his collapse.

I stayed with my mother in their condo for the week, and we visited my father daily.  He was feeling pretty good that last day of my visit.  Like my mother, he was happy to learn that I had begun the process of transferring from the branch office in which I worked in New York to one in Oakland so that within a couple of months I would be back on the west coast and close to them.

On that last day, my mother, my eldest sister, and I had been with him all afternoon.  As visiting hours ended, my mother and sister left the room while I remained standing beside his bed.  As soon as they had gone, my father said, “Look after those two.”

I assured him that I would.

Then he said, “You know, son, last night I couldn’t sleep much.  I spent a long time just lying in this bed, in the dark.”  He paused.  When he continued it was with a tone of voice that seemed as serious, calm, and enduring as words carved in stone.  “And I realized something:  we are not alone.”

I did not ask what he meant, whether angels or ghosts had gathered around him that previous night.  The important aspect of his meaning was clear in the tone of his voice.   The quiet assurance with which he spoke meant that this was a fact that brought comfort, ease of mind, and peace at heart to him.

I probably smiled as I answered him saying “O, I know.”  Although I was over forty years younger than he, I had already buried so many of my friends that I had become familiar with experiencing the presence of those around us who are incorporeal.


My parents had undertaken the cruise to South America that year in part to be alone together somewhere beautiful and comfortable on the first anniversary of the death of their three-year old grandson.  have mentioned his death before with reference to my sister’s grief.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that the death of one’s child is the most horrific and most painful loss imaginable, but I have not heard mention of the pain such an event causes the grandparents.  Their grandchildren are extensions of their own children and no less precious.  So grandparents are wounded in the same way that parents are, and in addition they have the pain of seeing their own child’s monstrous suffering too.

I remember that, in the afternoon of the little boy’s funeral, as mourners crowded my sister’s house, spilling over into the garden and the orchard on their ranch, I caught sight of my father sitting alone in an out-of-the-way corner inside house.  His head was bowed low over his chest and his shoulders rounded as they slumped forward, his entire body appearing literally deflated, as if his head, were he left to sit there just a bit longer, would soon be in his own lap.  I do not doubt that much of his willingness to live died within him that day.

And a little over a year later, he was dead.


I visited Tuscarora, Nevada a few summers ago.  Once the largest town in northern Nevada, with a population of five thousand, it now has a population of at most two dozen.  It is the town in which my great-great-grandfather spent his final years.

I met some of the current inhabitants, among whom the ancient virtues of hospitality and friendly conversation thrive.  I learned from them that the largest ranch in the valley, which he had owned, is still called by his name.  Then as I made my way out of town, I stopped at the cemetery.

As I stepped through the gate, I turned around and looked back over the whole valley.  I was surprised to see how green it was even though it was late summer in a region that is otherwise high desert.  I was also struck by the impression that the view -- from a place that I could not have found on a map just a few weeks before -- seemed familiar to me.  I thought that perhaps “familiar” was not the right word for my feeling and that “lovely” or “comfortable” might be more accurate.  I wanted to name my feeling accurately, and conventional ideas, namely that the mind’s understanding is limited to that which has been experienced by the individual body in which it is believed to reside, told me that I could not possibly regard this view as “familiar.”

About ten minutes later, I found my great-great-grandfather’s grave within a family plot surrounded by a low wooden picket fence.  At the center of the plot stood a white marble obelisk, twelve or fifteen feet in height.  On its sides I read the dates of my great-great-grandfather’s birth and death and the dates of the birth and death of his son and his grandson, who are buried with him.  The grandson, aged two years, had died a day before the son, the baby’s father, died.  My great-great-grandfather died almost exactly a year later.  I thought of my father, sitting slumped over in my sister’s house, and I realized that my great-great-grandfather must have felt much of himself die within him, too, when he had to bury his grandson and his son.

I found one more thing while in that cemetery.  I am surprised now to realize that I do not remember whether it happened before I found the grave, or at the time I turned to look out over the valley, or afterward.  What I do remember is a sudden, vertiginous experience, as if the ground beneath me had opened -- or rather as if from the soles of my feet huge stone or steel shafts had thrust themselves down into the earth far, far below me.  I felt as if the legs on which I stood extended hundreds of feet into the crust of the earth.  And simultaneously, I seemed to view the valley spread before me from eyes that opened way back in my head, as if my head were a mask and my own eyes the little cut-out holes through which this second set of eyes could peer at the world.

I found myself thinking, “O -- I have come back.”

I found myself thinking “O -- he is here inside me.”

Why wouldn’t his thoughts be knitted into mine as surely as is his DNA?

When I returned home from my trip and told my sisters about my great-great-grandfather having lost his son and grandson a year before he died, I learned that none of them had know that fact.  Clearly, neither had my father.  Is it strange then that he should have re-lived his great-grandfather’s tragic loss and have followed the same path to death as well?

Were the two men separate?  Or did one being exist at two different times, like a quantum particle that is in two places at the same time or in two times at once?

Our minds are not our own.

And we are not alone.