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Good Letters

20120411-what-its-like-to-be-alive-by-peggy-rosenthalIn the final scene of Anne Tyler’s novel Back When We Were Grownups, the uncle of protagonist Rebecca gives a speech at the party she has arranged for his 100th birthday. Throughout the novel, he has been an endearingly complex character, quite mentally alert for his age but with spells of irritability or of dissociation from the present. All the novel’s characters, in fact, share this very human mix of contentment and dissatisfaction with what life has dealt them.

“Well,” Poppy begins his birthday speech to the extended family gathered in the living room for the occasion. “This has been just what I dreamed of, I tell you. From the very start of the day, it’s been perfect. Sunshine on my bedspread when I opened my eyes; radiators coming on all dusty-smelling and cozy. Waffles for breakfast, that puffy kind that are light inside but crispy outside, and one-hundred-percent maple syrup heated first in the microwave and then poured over in a pool and left a moment to soak, so the waffles turn spongy and every crumb of them is sopping with that toasty, nutty flavor…”

Rebecca and the rest of the family start to wonder how long this speech will be, since getting through breakfast has already taken several minutes. Poppy goes on past the waffles, into his morning shave (“anything nicer than soft, rich lather and a plenitude of hot water?”), then into his game of solitaire upstairs while Rebecca was readying the party:

“The best thing about solitaire is, it’s so solitary. You’re allowed to think these aimless thoughts and nobody asks what you’re up to. You lay out the cards, slip, slip, slip—a peaceful sound—and then you sit a while and think, and the mantel clock is tick-tocking and the smell of fresh hot coffee is coming up from downstairs.”

Most of the party-guests are getting bored or beginning to bicker among themselves, but Poppy goes on to celebrate his lunch of a peanut-butter-jelly sandwich: “There’s something so satisfying about a p.b.j. done right. And this was done exactly right: the grape jelly smeared so thick that it had started soaking through, making these oozy purple stains like bruises on the bread….”

A couple of the family quietly make their goodbyes and slip out the door as Poppy moves into his afternoon nap under the sheets:

“It’s like you’ve made yourself a nest the exact same shape as your body. It’s this body-shape of warmth, and if you find you’re a little too warm, you just move your feet the least little bit and there’s this fresh new coolness.”

Nearly everyone has stopped listening by now. But not Rebecca. In a line that’s one of my favorites in the novel, Tyler tells us that “Rebecca was enjoying this. It was sort of like a report on what it was like to be alive, she decided.”

It was sort of like a report on what it was like to be alive. And isn’t it wonderfully so?

Poppy’s speech, for me, is a celebration of the sacramentality of the most ordinary things of life. The context of his speech makes it even more sacramental: the family around him indulging in the bickering that’s typical, alas, of many extended families, dotted by small fleeting gestures of tenderness among them.

When I’m having a cranky spell, I return to Poppy’s speech. In fact, one reason I wrote this post is so that I’d have the speech in my computer. (My sister and I trade Tyler’s novels back and forth, so I never know which ones I’ll have at my fingertips.)

Poppy’s caressing of each moment of his day is my model for how to live. It reminds me of an old Hasidic saying: “Each moment that you bless goes right to heaven; each moment that you don’t bless is lost forever.”

Why is it so hard for us to caress each moment, to bless it? Some would answer that it’s our fallen natures. Some would say it’s distraction, forgetfulness of the preciousness of life.

Whatever the reason, I know I’m not alone in neglecting to celebrate the unique texture of each passing instant of our finite lives. The marvelous paradox is that when I do stop and give absolutely full attention to the texture of what meets my senses at that finite moment, it’s then that I’m in touch with infinite.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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