Recently, I’ve been one of those half-witted people easily caught at her uncensored best or worst. Illness, grief, family chaos, and other calamities have descended, and they have scrambled my brain. In this time, I’ve vacillated between an appetite for things that are beautiful and things that are, well, People magazine worthy. It’s reminded me that when we are grieving, we root like babies, desperate for comfort, taking into our mouths the first thing that slips between our lips. Sometimes it nourishes, and sometimes it pacifies.
Consider the music rotation in my sick room: Faure’s Requiem, Natasha Bedingfield, and YouTube Natasha Bedingfield karaoke stars. Or consider the state of the radio dial: flicking from the country station to the Christian music station, I hang onto the four-chord songs as if for dear life.
And movies? Physical pain has curtailed my patience for violence, so after my housemates trundled me to No Country For Old Men, I emerged into the sunlight ranting about how, save the coin-toss scene, most of the murders had so little narrative value that I was bored waiting for Javier Bardem’s scuba tank to blow.
Art? I can do Andrew Wyeth. Books? The Chronicles of Narnia, read aloud. And John Donne poetry, LOL Cats, People and Oprah, all of which count as books at this point in my life.
I’ve wondered: is this bad? Am I stunting my own recovery by stuffing my mind with a few beautiful things and a lot of random fluff?
Growing stronger, I’ve tried to force-feed myself “better” things – hence the pile of unread novels at my bedside, which inevitably get snowed under by Kleenex and magazine inserts. Searching blindly for some validation in my artlessness, this morning I googled mindlessly until landing at the English translation of Faure’s Requiem, whose Latin verses I can now sing by heart. As a meditation on God’s inscrutable justice, it makes a plaintive anthem for the sickbed. It begins with prayers for the dead, then cries for mercy, and rises to fevered supplication, in which both fear and peace are plain:
Deliver me, O Lord, / from eternal death, / on that fearful day / when the heavens are moved and the earth / when thou shalt come to judge / the world through fire. / I am made to tremble, and I fear … / Rest eternal grant them, O Lord, / and let perpetual light shine on them.
I love the Requiem’s words for the way they volley from simple, human pleas to proclamations and back again. And I love its soaring final wish that angels may lead the soul into holy Jerusalem, where, with once poor Lazarus, it may find eternal rest. We need God’s mercy, especially at times when our bodies are worn so thin that we remember that death is coming, and the souls inside us rise up, palpable. If earthly mercies, the comforts that keep our bodies and souls trained on God, arrive via kitsch or art, who am I to judge?
Certainly, I’ll give myself the chance to enjoy music and movies whose beauty imparts a lasting, grounding sense of being human. But I won’t be too hard on myself for the taking in the sugar-coated bursts that, at the very least, get my worn body out of bed in the morning.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Laura Bramon
Laura Bramon lives in Washington, DC, where she works on international child protection and human trafficking issues. Her creative work appears in The Best Creative Non-Fiction (W.W. Norton), IMAGE, Books & Culture, and other outlets.