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The context of death



I saw a woman who looked familiar getting out of her car when I pulled into a local greenhouse today. She walked briskly into the place, and I soon lost sight of her as I began talking with one of the workers.

As I talked, the woman walked past me (I was off to the side with the greenhouse worker), paid for her purchase and was about to leave when I called her name. She stopped with an “I don’t recognize you” look turning into an “of course I recognize you” look in a couple of seconds. We began to talk. She was in town from New York City to arrange a memorial service for her brother, she said, and unexpected things—major things—were cropping up.

“I’m frazzled,” she said. I wish I wore “frazzled” as well as she was. She had no makeup on, and her hair was less red and more bronze than I remembered, but she still looked smart, dignified, a woman sure of her place in the world. I knew enough not to prolong the conversation, although in other circumstances, neither of us would have done that.

I’ve known her since what, eighth grade? We ran in entirely different circles—she was a “band kid,” I wasn’t. All I remember of her was that she was extremely smart and wasn’t someone whom I wanted to work up any high school angst-y antipathy toward. I had a bit of a crush on her during my senior year but was too shy to tell her or anybody else.

As I grow older, whenever I run into people like her—people who were smart enough, talented enough and had sense enough to leave our home town—it’s often in the context of death. People come back here for memorial services and funerals. I suspect it’s always been that way in anyone’s hometown.

Invariably, talking with the folks who return is an eye-opener. The conversations are different than they were when we all were growing up. We now recognize each other as people whose lives are in many ways very much alike, as opposed to high school, when the differences among us were paramount.

She and I might have a cup of coffee if she stays here next week (the service is Friday). I hope it happens—but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t. After Friday, her life will start tilting again toward the here-and-now, and our hometown will be, for her, a good place to be from.

In the meantime, I’ll continue checking the obituaries page in the paper, where familiar names pop up much more often than makes me comfortable.

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Wish I'd Said It

Nota bene: “Fear has governed my life, if I think about it. ... I always feel like I’m not good enough for some reason. I wish that wasn’t the case, but left to my own devices, that voice starts speaking up.” – Trent Reznor

“I hate to say this, but not many people care what you do. They care about what you do as much as you care about what they do. Think about it. Just exactly that much. You are not the center of the universe.” — Laurie Anderson

"The path's not yours till you've gone it alone a time." – William Carlos Williams

“Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.” – Twyla Tharp

"My definition of peace is having no noise in my head." – Eric Clapton

"The wreckage of the sky serves to confirm us in delicious error." – John Ashbery

"We are all here by the grace of the big bang. We are all literally the stuff of the stars." – Dwight Owsley

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream." – Vincent van Gogh

"It is only with the heart that one can see right; what is essential is invisible to the eye." — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Forget about being a perfectionist, because entropy always wins out in the end." – Darren Kaufman.

"Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence." – Garry Shandling

"Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion." – Mark Twain

"There is no realm wherein we have the truth." – Gordon Lish

"Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere." – E.M. Forster

“Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." – Frank Zappa

“I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” – Voltaire

• Journal title and subtitle: Ian Hunter, “Man Overboard”

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