Editorial: Meditation on death and life

My friend Jim Harrison wrote to me last fall: “Nothing new here except aggressive aging that comes from working every day of the week. I don’t know what else to do. Since age 14 I’ve been a slave to language. There’s a new book about aging — “Travels with Epicurus.” Penguin. Fine and discreet, elegant, truthful. With age all my opinions drift away. Who am I to say for sure? My people thought they’d see Jesus when they died. Now that we know we have 90 billion galaxies, I’m not inclined to discount anything. How can I say what is not possible in this universe? You can disembowel reality all you want and certainties are hard to find, the towering reality being death. I don’t mind. I was never asked. On death, a tour of the 90 billion galaxies would be flattering. Yes? Our curiosity is still in the lead. Wittgenstein said that the miracle is that the world exists.”
Jim died March 26 at 78, at his desk, writing, pen in hand, in Arizona where he liked to spend the winters, having spent enough of them in Michigan, where he wrote “Legends of the Fall” and most of the rest of his 21 volumes of fiction and 14 of poetry, in a cabin in the woods. A prodigious output, but not so remarkable for a man who sat down to work every day, all the more as he got older. He kept a radio in his cabin and that’s how we met: I was on the radio. He told me this when we met backstage at a theater in San Francisco, a battered old one-eyed man, stiff in his legs from years of hiking rough trails, who spoke like you’d want a poet to talk, very free, allusive, big leaps, big-hearted. Once, a women’s quartet sang “Shall We Gather at the River (That Flows by the Throne of God)?” on the show and he was moved to write a poem (“They say it runs by the throne of God. / This is where God invented fish.”) in which he said that maybe nothing happens after death, but if so, we won’t know it. But maybe something does:
Maybe we’ll be cast
at the speed of light through the universe
to God’s throne. His hair is bounteous.
We’ll sing with the warblers perched on his eyelashes.
The obituaries emphasized the he-manly pursuits of hunting, boozing, heroic feats of gourmandizing, the love of women, which Jim wouldn’t have minded, but I only knew him as an old man, when those exploits were memories and he was looking ahead to death.
“With age all my opinions drift away.” I think I know the feeling. I grew up among devout believers, as Jim did, surrounded by apocalyptic certainty about What Was Yet To Come, which is a fine thing to have had in your youth. It protects you from developing militant certainty in adulthood when it could be monstrous. You are free to live your life broadly, against expectations, discarding your own biases, taking short views, living in gratitude for the miracles around you.
Crowds of the faithful attend the candidates for president, enjoying the high of certainty. Europe is riveted by the awareness that, at any moment, as a crowd hangs out in a public square, taking the sun, eating lunch, listening to the bands play, strangers equipped with powerful certainty could blow them up. The patriots who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for 41 days turn out to be middle-aged adolescents whose idea of liberty was doing damage to property. Their leader sits in jail in Portland, certain that he was doing God’s will.
I wish you well, old man, as you fly around the galaxies. I imagine God will keep you busy naming them. Name one Michigan, and another Montana, and another Arizona, for the states you loved, and also your daughters and grandchildren, and Cotes du Rhone, and Malpeque, and Stolichnaya, and Linda, and Joyce, the dogs, the birds — a billion or so should give you room to cover just about everything you loved.
Here’s to old Harrison — Jim,
Who imagined the Lord as a limb,
Nothing fearful or horribler
But a place where a warbler
Would perch and perchance sing a hymn.
— Garrison Keillor is the host of “A Prairie Home Companion.”

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