Considering Suicide

Anne Sexton lists many wounds in her poem about life’s pain that I quoted here yesterday: She speaks of ‘When they called you crybaby, or poor, or fatty, or crazy, and made you into an alien…” She seemed to feel such unease about her life, an unease that did not stop until the day she ended it. Having gone over her manuscript for her next collection The Awful Rowing Toward God with her friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin, she went out to her garaged car, started the engine and sat there until the carbon monoxide essentially overcame her by-then unconscious body.

I only mean to say make it clear today that whatever pain living may have caused and however much I praised that poem, I would never do what she did – as long as I was well look out at the sky and know I was looking at it; to gaza at the faces of my caregivers and know them for the benevolent angels that such people are….

As long as I could know myself to still be balancing the brimming chalice that is life I would not consider suicide.

Here’s the poem that for me outlines the best way to look at death. Mary Oliver wrote it, and for 20 years a framed copy of it has hung on a wall in my house. Give it a read and tell me you don’t find it beautiful, and comforting, and inspirational:

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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Striding Out

anne sextonWhy write about the silly and the shallow just because our childish culture has a thirst for such?

If I’m to write every day let me write about things that inspire the mind or gladden the heart.

Let me copy out Anne Sexton’s poem Courage, for both its bravura and its pain. She was born in the city my ancestors came to as mill workers in the 1850s. She lived, she struggled. She soldiered on as we all do.

I remember the day the news broke that she had taken her own life; in my teaching years it was. The head of the English Department opened my classroom door and told me. I was young but I knew who she was, I knew. And her poems thrilled and frightened me.

I am not young now but they thrill and frighten me still. The slippers in the closing lines alone!! Not the self-killing but oh for that bold stepping forth…

Anyway It goes like this.

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

Later,
if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
comver your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Later,
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later,
when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.