Terry from Derry: Because I Could Not Stop
By Terry Boyle
Most people are familiar with Emily Dickinson’s famous poem about death. The narrator’s sudden realization that life is short, and death is inescapable hammers home the central message to live life to the fullest. It’s perhaps hard for us to think of living out our carpe diem dreams while in the throes of a pandemic, but there is no better time for us to contemplate our mortality.
Millions of people, worldwide, have died because of infection. We’ve watched politicians flounder, businesses go bust, witnessed the best and worst of humanity, and there’s been very little we could do about any of it. The unseen virus has reminded us daily of how fragile life is.
With fear and wonder, we’ve seen how this tiny, significant lifeform has resisted our best efforts to stop it, mutating to optimize its survival. Covid-19, like ourselves, is remarkably resourceful in its ability to adapt to threats, and, like ourselves, fights for continuation. However, unlike us, the virus is equitable in its attacks.
Covid does not target a particular race, creed, or gender. The virus is equally indifferent to whether its victims are rich or poor, morally upright or reprehensible. It is without any moral compass. It is neither ruthless nor malignant. There is no conscience to appeal to, and it cannot be reasoned with.
We deem it an enemy because it attacks our defense system and threatens our existence as a species. In just over a year, this new lifeform has radically changed us in ways we could never have foreseen. We are more than ever faced with the reality that we are expendable.
Dickinson’s poem invites the reader to ‘stop’ and think. When faced with the inevitably of death, we can make some profound changes to our lives or not. The realization that death is our final end can provide us with opportunities become better people.
Dickenson and Scrooge
Scrooge is perhaps one of the best examples of how one man when faced with his selfish life is given another chance to do good. It is a heartwarming tale with a warning for us all, live for yourself and die alone.
Of course, Scrooge’s ghosts (past, present and future) become a reality check for a man who refuses to ‘stop’ and contemplate his existence, and, as such, embodies Plato’s unexamined life that is not worth living. When finally, he is faced with his own gravestone, as with Dickinson’s narrator is, the effect is palpable. The shock of having to face his own final resting place is a last reprieve for Scrooge, whereas for Dickinson’s narrator it is too late. Scrooge is saved because he has been forced to stop and reckon with his selfishness.
We have all heard the saying to stop and smell the roses. In today’s world, it’s the antiseptic smell of a hospital that might be the thing to bring us to our senses. A vaccine is not a cure, but it can stop the virus from being deadly, and may prevent hospitalization. In one sense, this advancement is a cause for hope, but it’s not a certainty.
We may have escaped death this time around, but have we learned anything from it? Will we, like Scrooge, amend our lives and find fulfillment in investing in others, or we will face our demise like Dickinson’s narrator unchanged? The key to what makes us different to the indiscriminate, amoral, nature of the virus is our ability to reason and contemplate.
We, as human beings, can do remarkable things to better our world. There are countless examples of people who have unselfishly changed our societies for better. Motivated by love and concern, they have improved the lot of their communities. Conditions in hospitals, jails, schools etc. have been attributed to the work of individuals who have set themselves to leaving an impression on this world long after they’ve gone. Some of them we will remember, most of them we will not.
My father was one of those people who will not doubt be forgotten in time, but who, as a recovered alcoholic, changed the lives of many. Known locally as the body snatcher, my father would take the worst alcoholics from the streets and deliver them to a rehab centre. He was not a young man when he began his work, but his age was not a deterrent.
The pandemic has made those of us who are older or physically challenged reluctant to do much to put ourselves in danger. However, now with an ever-increasing number of vaccinations, we are in a position to make a difference.
There are many charities who have suffered the loss of volunteers during the worst of the pandemic that are in serious need of our help. When I retired, I was determined to not to simply let my life waste away. I was now free to do more of what I valued. And, it was with this thought that I wrote the following poem.
If I were to add to it, I would write ‘don’t let a pandemic stop you from doing good.’ We have faced our mortality and survived. Let us make the best of it.
Be Not Still
By Terry Boyle
Be not still heart of mine,
Resist silence and beat your big drum, Loudly,
Stomp, shout, scream a vibrant anthem,
And, when hoarse with time
Let the chamber music of your soul echo
Through those life-giving arterial routes,
Let me feel the swell of your rage,
Deafen me in arias, tragic and sublime,
Play no requiem, nor dirge, while you throb,
Pulsate, when the breath of God shakes
The very temple of your being.
Do not slow down when time races,
Keep from the great sleep that bewitches us all,
Don’t stumble when loved ones’ lull and pause
Pray for life, not subsistence, vigor and hope,
Stifle the anger inside your passionate breast,
Lap for lap, give time its lead but do not follow
Passively in its wake,
Ignore the diminishing road behind, look forward,
Face the finish line with the breath of God
Still burning in your lungs.
Do not let the youth make you feel a stranger
When you have never felt at home,
Make your strangeness sublime, intricate and foreign,
Speak the language of tomorrow, not yesterday,
Do not let the courtesans of today make you disappear
Into a pension, dignify you with platitudes, or bully you
Into silent retreat,
Never relinquish, nor resign to the last gasp
Dance through the creaks and aches of your bones
Until the breath of God parts the red sea before you.