What’s the Message?

I had intended another entry, but it will have to wait.

Wesleyan held Nora Miller’s agonizing and beautiful memorial service late yesterday afternoon. Light streamed through the three stained glass windows of the chapel. I’ve never been around so many people (500?) sitting mostly still, in utter silence. No talking, a little whispering, no cell phones. Just a great many people come together with a purpose. Most were students but faculty, and former students and teachers from Middletown filled in a few places. The 5 p.m. service started a bit late as more and more people made space for friends and friends of friends.

The sun formed prisms and rainbows behind the left panel of the triptych when we arrived. As the service ended it was shining through the center pane. I’ve not read the history of the building, but my sense was that the designers intended those windows to catch the westering sun at the equinox, which occurred Wednesday night.

A visibly shaken Michael Roth opened the proceedings. I have seen Wesleyan’s  president in a number of settings. I have never before seen him at a loss for words. He meant it when he said, “I don’t know what to say.” It was as if he took Nora’s death as a personal failure. He recovered, however, with brief remarks on how we should all be grateful for Nora’s time here and with us. But he also acknowledged the pain and the grief that everyone was feeling at the loss of such a magnificent human being. Since we had just watched a photo tribute that captured her in all her various moods, it was impossible not to second that emotion.

I won’t rehearse the entire service but say merely that Rabbi David Leipziger Teva has perfect pitch. He stood up twice, once to read a letter from the family, and then to deliver remarks about Nora. He, too, acknowledged the difficulty of the situation. He had everyone take the hand of their neighbor while he spoke. His message of connection and support resonated throughout the chapel.

As Larry and I walked back to the car, we noticed that a great many people seemed reluctant to leave, even though there was a reception following. Most were just standing around in front of the chapel, looking utterly lost.

Before the ceremony the day served up various disturbing messages that I have not yet processed. I tried to listen to the songs from the album that Nora posted called Set Yourself on Fire. I couldn’t so I can’t tell you whether Stars merited the Juno nomination.

A few minutes after I turned off the audio, I came across an interview with William S. Burroughs for the blog entry I intended to post. Early in the interview he revealed he had never contemplated suicide and would only do so under very, very limited circumstances – capture and potential torture by the Nazis or maybe terminal cancer. I must say I agree. The interviewer seemed incredulous given Burroughs’ multiple addictions. He also talked about the reasons for Abbie Hoffman’s suicide. That death was ruled an accidental drug overdose but changed to suicide following an autopsy. Burroughs seemed to think it should have been obvious from the start.

At lunch I came across a poem titled “The Problem” by George Held. It had been published in the Fall 2008 CT Review, the state university journal. I’ve had the magazine for quite some time but am just now reading it. The poem takes its inspiration from a quote by Albert Camus: “There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Held seems to think that these days the problem of inequality equals the problem of suicide, or maybe it’s the same thing.

Then I turned on the radio so I could do my aerobic workout. I had left it on the station that plays the drug-addicted, misogynist hate-monger and the only word I heard him say before I changed the station was “suicide.” My search for music brought me to “Only the Good Die Young,” which I flipped past in a hurry.

At that point I switched over to the iPod, found “Beat It” at 138 beats per minute, turned it up full blast and started the workout.


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