Friday, March 7, 2014

I've always enjoyed reading Roger Angell's work. This isn't supposed to be an Angell biography, so if you don't know him I will just tell you a few things. He's chiefly known as an essayist, especially for The New Yorker. He writes beautifully (well -- mostly "wrote" -- he's 93 now and doesn't bang out that much these days) about all kinds of things but often about sports and especially about baseball. His mother, Katharine White, was instrumental in shaping The New Yorker, and when she left Angell's father for a younger man Roger became the stepson of E. B. White (Charlotte's Web, etc.). I recently read his book Let Me Finish, a collection of autobiographical essays, and I enjoyed it very much, especially the parts about growing up in New York City and some of the anecdotes about his stepfather.

Anyway, when I see Angell's byline I know I'm likely to enjoy what comes after it, so it was with interest that I read a recent article of his, This Old Man, written for (of course) The New Yorker. He makes all sorts of observations about what it's like to be 93, to have outlived the wife that he (and she) had assumed would outlive him -- to have outlived almost all of his contemporaries. I didn't find his essay to be morbid or maudlin -- merely observatory. It's not all about friends who've died (I say that because I think you'd enjoy reading the essay and don't want to discourage you), but since that's what I'm thinking about right now I'm going to excerpt this paragraph:
Our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight. I like to think of mine as fellow-voyagers crowded aboard the Île de France (the idea is swiped from “Outward Bound”). Here’s my father, still handsome in his tuxedo, lighting a Lucky Strike. There’s Ted Smith, about to name-drop his Gloucester home town again. Here comes Slim Aarons. Here’s Esther Mae Counts, from fourth grade: hi, Esther Mae. There’s Gardner—with Cecille Shawn, for some reason. Here’s Ted Yates. Anna Hamburger. Colba F. Gucker, better known as Chief. Bob Ascheim. Victor Pritchett—and Dorothy. Henry Allen. Bart Giamatti. My elder old-maid cousin Jean Webster and her unexpected, late-arriving Brit husband, Capel Hanbury. Kitty Stableford. Dan Quisenberry. Nancy Field. Freddy Alexandre. I look around for others and at times can almost produce someone at will. Callie returns, via a phone call. “Dad?” It’s her, all right, her voice affectionately rising at the end—“Da-ad?”—but sounding a bit impatient this time. She’s in a hurry. And now Harold Eads. Toni Robin. Dick Salmon, his face bright red with laughter. Edith Oliver. Sue Dawson. Herb Mitgang. Coop. Tudie. Elwood Carter.
 I dutifully read each name in this paragraph (I am nothing if not a dutiful reader; I read every name in the biblical genealogies, too). A couple were familiar to me (Bart Giamatti, Dan Quisenberry) but most were completely unknown. Because my mind works in mysterious ways, I decided to Google some of the other names. Slim Aarons was a celebrity photographer who died in 2006 at the age of 89. Cecille Shawn (boy, was THAT an interesting Google) was married to William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker for 35 years (they were the parents of the actor, Wallace Shawn, whom you all will recognize on sight if you don't know the name). William had -- with Cecille's knowledge -- a mistress named Lillian Ross (she was a writer) and he lived with her much of the time, helping to raise her adopted son. Twisty-turny lives. Ted Yates was a reporter and a producer who was killed while covering the Six-Day War in the Middle East. Anna Hamburger, a longtime director of International Rescue Committee -- she helped thousands of people who fled Soviet-bloc countries to begin new lives in America. Victor Pritchett, a British writer most famous for his short stories. On and on.

These people weren't top-tier celebrities -- no Marilyn Monroes or JFKs among them. But they were famous enough to warrant long-form obituaries in The New York Times, if that counts for anything. Famous enough that I'd probably have heard of them if I were twenty years older. Accomplished, talented, respected -- and forgotten just a couple of decades (or years) after their deaths.

I read Angell's piece a couple of weeks ago, but that thought -- about his deceased semi-famous friends -- has stayed with me ever since. Even if you accomplish a fair amount -- are successful by the standards of the world -- you will not be remembered in just a couple of generations. Most of us think we're a lot more significant than we are. I mean, when we stop and think about it we might realize we're not, but as we go along we act like the world revolves around us. Or I do, anyway.

Which is why it's pretty amazing to think that the King of the Universe knows how many hairs are on my head (and it changes by the minute if my floors are any indication!). That He is eager to have a relationship with ME. Nobody here may remember me in a hundred years, but I will still matter to HIM. That blows my mind.

I went to see Mrs. Rawlinson in the assisted living facility today. Because SHE matters -- to her children, to God. This is only my second visit. Elaine (the woman who is spearheading this visit-the-shut-ins ministry) went with me the last time because I had no idea what to do, but Elaine knows her, knows her family, and she chattered on and on about them, occasionally getting a grunt out of Mrs. Rawlinson. I knew that I'd be alone today, so I needed to come up with something to pass a little time after setting her up with a cookie (I just get those break-apart-and-bake cookies and she seems to like them very much). So I brought my Bible and asked her if she would like me to read something. She didn't seem enthused and her television was kind of loud, but I plunged ahead anyway. Psalm 100 and Psalm 34, just because. If I am ever in an assisted living facility and can't read I hope someone will read the Bible to me, so I figured it was not a bad idea. And then I prayed for her and I left. I wasn't there very long, but her eyes were closed, and we'd already talked about the weather, where she grew up, and what cookies she likes.

I hope I get better at this -- more comfortable. Because that will mean that I'm thinking less about myself and more about others.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.  --Psalm 34:4,5
 More later...

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