(im)mortality

“And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for all the things he did.”

Those words, from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, were tweeted and retweeted with great frequency in the past 48 hours. These prescient words offer an unlikely form of comfort as they suggest both acceptance and reflection. I will make a confession now: it didn’t occur to me that Ray Bradbury was still alive, so when the news of his death first flashed on my twitter feed my immediate thoughts turned to the impending public response. The quantity of tweets and chirps that filled the communicative airwaves after the passing of poet and author Adrienne Rich in late March pales in comparison to the voluminous outpouring of tributes and reflections that have consumed the various social media spaces in honor of Bradbury, who was 91 when he died. And in the wake of his death, the musings and sharings of others have provided incredible insights into the man. Take, for example, this letter the author wrote relatively recently in support of libraries in which he describes the impact of being surrounded by shelves of books:

“How could I have written so many words so quickly? It was because of the library. All of my friends, all of my loved ones, were on the shelves above and shouted, yelled and shrieked at me to be creative.”

Incidentally, a large collection of letters, written by Bradbury as well as other persons of interest, can be found on the Letters of Note website.

I keep returning, however, to Bradbury’s words that begin this post. Certainly tears are shed at someone’s passing, but what do our emotions actually signify? If we know — or are at least in some way aware — that each of us is just passing through, as it were, why and how is it that we form such deep attachments? Like the wise author writes, we seem to form attachments for “all the things” people do. Stranger yet are the deeply formed attachments we make to veritable strangers who, because of their words, do not remain strangers for very long. How is it, like many have said about the likes of Sebald and others, that an intimacy is evoked simply through the act of reading? Not merely the sort of intimacy akin to routine and familiarity, such as we might experience with the person who checks us in at the gym or the ever-present barista at the local coffee shop; I am referring instead to the kinship that is nurtured between a reader and a writer even when the actual distance, both spatial and temporal as well as social and cultural, is vast. At moments of death (and, by extension, a recognition of our own mortality), do we mourn the end of what might yet have come into being at the writer’s hand?

Perhaps we are moved to remember how it is that we encountered these intimate strangers in the first place. Who are these authors who come to live inside of us and whose penned and typed words take shape in the form of our thoughts and questions, and whose views of the world intersect, challenge, and comfort our own? Of course, this is not only true of writers but also of others who creations — paintings, films, the city landscape of buildings, and more — are absorbed into our beings; we are because they made. … thus, moving us to make, create, question, live differently.

Emerson wrote that “every end is a beginning”*, an assertion that is shown to be especially true in the socially mediated world in which we live and communicate. Following Rich’s death, for instance, I engaged in an exchange with a friend via twitter about the ways in which her words are effecting and how her death is even more so; in the space of our exchange was the additional comfort that comes from recognizing familiar glimpses in another. The various spheres and universes of communication were filled with people sharing favorite quotes, passages, and memories that predictably led to me increasing my “must read” list. Similarly, with Bradbury — and perhaps more so — I have delighted in learning more about who he was in the eyes of others, the larger extent of his writings and genres (including letters to various parties), and the many forms his influence took across nine decades of life. (These nonagenarians are putting the rest of us to shame!) A few of these literary treasures are included here:

Indeed.

And now I will correct my earlier confession — it’s not quite precise that I didn’t realize Ray B. was still alive; in truth, I am merely trying to “wrap my head around”, as Joseph McCabe from FearNet describes, “a world where Ray Bradbury no longer lives.”

*The phrase is part of a longer quote from Emerson’s essay “Circles“: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”
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