Print This Post
January 10, 2012

Endings and Garage Sales

Read/Post Comments (10)

In a recent USA Today article “God Religion, Atheism 'So What?'” (Springfield News-Leader 8 January 2012, p. 2A) the pollsters consulted by author Cathy Lynn Grossman are simply asking the wrong questions. Their questions are framed generally in terms of traditional Judeo-Christian faith. For example, Grossman quotes Mark Silk, Professor of Religion at Trinity College: “The real dirty little secret of religiosity in America is that there are so many people for whom spiritual interest, thinking about ultimate questions, is minimal.” Readers should not think, however, that apathy toward the questions and answers of traditional religion is the same as apathy toward the ultimate questions of existence. Traditional religious questions and answers eventually become boring beyond belief, but the primal questions of human life are in our genes and faced every day.

     In recent years I have begun to think about mortality as much more than an intellectual exercise—not an unusual thing for a man at my stage of life to ponder when more of life lies behind than ahead. The sense of an ending should have occurred to me early on as the existential question of everyone’s life. Each of us is writing a story, just like a fiction novel. But unlike the novelist who knows the ending, in the fictions of our lives the ending remains a mystery.

     I have been much too busy to sense the nearness of the ending to my own story. I keep thinking incorrectly that my story is yet in medias res, even though I am well past the proverbial “three score and ten”—until there crosses my mind a poem by Emily Dickenson beginning with the couplet: “Because I could not stop for death; he kindly stopped for me. . . .”

     A growing sense of an ending emerges with the necessity of closing down an active career: what to do with a professional library assembled over 60 years, and pondering practical questions: when to close down the house and move into one smaller and more manageable? Do we move closer to the children? Too often theoretical questions become real life issues at the time pondering is suddenly interrupted by an estate sale, which is left to our children or close friends to negotiate.

     There is always an estate or garage sale of some sort when things shake down at the end of life and “treasures” and sentimental junk are put on public display. Someone will have to do it—either you, your children, or an executor. Our “treasures” do not have the same sentimental value to others as they do to us; those with real material value will be sold, while the rest will eventually grace flea market shelves. True, some will make their way to the homes of children or friends—if that has not already begun to happen.

     I have a slightly younger friend, a former university professor, scholar, and executive of a large non-profit agency, who sensing the ending resolved irresolution. He pared down his scholar’s library to one or two shelves of a general book collection and sold his boat. But lest you think he is waiting around for the inevitable ending to his personal story, he began a new chapter as an artist and writer of fiction. He did not disengage to wait for death to come calling, but simply created a new middle for himself. We have never talked about such things, he and I, beyond the occasional joking comment. But to his credit, there will be no large estate sale for his “stuff”; a small garage sale should do it—at the most. While in my case, I fear the yard will be filled with unwanted “stuff” destined for flea markets. At the over-ripe age of 77 I have begun pondering the future of my treasures and other “stuff”—but my own future was written in dust long before I drew my first breath.

     Reflecting about the nature of existence and the meaning of life is the common human experience. Those fortunate enough to shake off the indoctrination of the religion of youth struggle with those questions more openly outside the “safe house” of traditional religious answers. It is a freeing experience to face an open future with no pat answers, and, strangely it is comforting to realize that even ancient religious texts in which we put so much credence are still only human attempts to answer those two ultimate questions.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:01am

Charlie, I am so glad you asked! Believe it or not my freshman English course at Mississippi Delta Community College was taught by Nell Henry Thomas, and my paper was entitled "Sipping Sacramental Wine," and in it, I examined (rather presumptuous of me) Emily's faith that she seemed to declare one moment and slyly question the next. I read a LOT of poems that semester, using her "Chart" poem as my main argument for her faith, and many of the others to point out she had questions about her faith. She had a seminary education (did that strengthen her faith or bring up more questions?) She lived across the street from the cemetery, and seldom left the house, so she was subjected to the steady stream of carriages bringing someone's loved ones to the same place "where she last saw" her own. She looked at tombstones as we might view that of our Nell and sighed "such sagacity perished there." I'll have to get out my paper to refresh my memory, but I know her last words written as she was dying were "Called home. Emily" That's the way I like to think it will be for me. She wrote of an afterlife in her poem which begins "This world is not conclusion.." but she is still questioning the "Tooth that nibbles at the soul." Wouldn't it be terrible to have all the answers? It was a happy time for me as I examined all her doubts and affirmations. I still feel very close to her as a result.
Posted by Grace Menhel on 1/25/2012 at 9:26pm

More thoughts on the inevitable -- "...when the king be witnessed in his power." Is this God? Where are we, our spirits, when we can "not see to see"?


I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.
Posted by Charles Sallis on 1/25/2012 at 5:14pm

Excellent question, Charlie. Somehow when Nell Thomas had our eleventh grade English class memorize “Chartless,” it really stuck with me. I like the “certain am I of the spot as if a chart were given.“ That’s very comforting. I did not know this poem until you and Jane shared it. At the age of 76, I’m not so certain of as much as I was certain of when I was 16! Life experiences are great teachers, as are our middle-aged children and our grown grandsons. The views from the Hubble telescope and outer space photos of our little Earth ship expand my earlier “certainty.” I’m keeping both my mind and my options open. Reading your blog and comments keeps me on my spiritual toes. THANK YOU!!
Posted by Charles & Harrylyn Sallis on 1/25/2012 at 5:08pm

What do you think, Jane and Harrylyn? In the final couplet (in the following poem), Emily doesn’t sound as if she thinks of heaven in the traditional Christian way as a “place” outside the natural order of things. In other words heaven and hell, as well, have to do with experiences in human life. If so, it is a rather modern way of looking at things. How do you guys think of heaven?
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 1/25/2012 at 11:15am

Hi, Charlie,
Here’s the poem:

Emily Dickinson (1830–86). Complete Poems. 1924.
Part One: Life

MY life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,

So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

From the website:

I just love reading poetry – it’s feels like I’m being nourished by beauty, depth and meaning!

Take care,
Posted by Jane Terry on 1/23/2012 at 8:51am

So how do you exegete the final couplet?
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 1/23/2011 at 4:02pm

Hi, Charlie.
It was Harrylyn who sent “Chartless” by Emily Dickinson. [We can’t get our email to say Harrylyn so everything seems to be from Charles.] There was a piece last week on NPR about Emily Dickinson and her introverted shyness. I wonder if today she would be diagnosed as agoraphobic.
Posted by Harrylyn on 1/21/2012 at 6:41pm

Emily Dickinson

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.

Posted by Charles Sallis on 1/21/2012 at 10:18am

Thanks Charles,
It is a beautiful poem you quote (#1052), clearly showing that she believed in heaven. How would you exegete the couplet in poem 1732, which was quoted by Jane?

In support of my other comments here are two quotes: “She stopped going to church at an early age, and instead sought spiritual solace away from the family pew” and “[o]nly a handful [of her poems] were published during her lifetime” (pages p. 74 and 75): in Joel Conarroe, Six American Poets (Random House, 1991).
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 1/21/2012 at 4:00pm

I appreciated your observation that we all tend to imagine our lives "in medias res"---even though we ought to be heeding Socrates' advice to "practice dying." After all, we're all terminal, aren't we? Ain't none of us gonna get out of this life alive? ;-) I was hit hard by a life-threatening disease in 2006 (multiple treatments, hospitalizations, surgeries), but since then my life has regained equilibrium, and I keep on rolling. My disease is such that I will never be out from under its shadow, but after almost six years since diagnosis, I'm still here, still working, still hugging my loved ones, and I live like I'm "in medias res," just like everyone else. I should know better, huh? But Socrates' advice is hard to follow. Also that attributed to Jesus: "take up the cross..."

I hope you'll keep on provoking us for many more years, and I'll hope to be around to benefit!
Warm best wishes,
Bob Fowler
Posted by Bob Fowler on 1/21/2012 at 11:13am

Hi, Charlie,
I also read the article in the News-Leader. In my experience, I have found most surveys/polls an exercise in frustration: the questions are often vague or irrelevant; the answers from which to choose are either too general or too trite – they don’t allow for nuances or contradictions, which is what comprises my (and, I assume, most people’s) beliefs/opinions; and the answers are often misleading or suggestive.

In my conversations with students, friends and colleagues, existential (“religious” or otherwise) questions are important to most of them. Perhaps my circle of acquaintances is biased toward existential angst!

Once I read somewhere that “death is THE reality” for humans, and we should live our lives with this reality uppermost in our minds. Certainly, Buddhism stresses the conditional, temporary nature of life and the contemplation of death and decomposition as a means of living one’s life. No mention of garage sales, though! Let me know when you have yours – I can always use more books!

And, since you mentioned her, I think Emily Dickinson also wrote this concerning death: “Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need to know of hell.”
Jane Terry
Posted by Jane Terry on 1/19/2012 at 9:47am

Your quote from Dickinson: do you know where it comes from? An interesting statement, and one that scarcely reflects traditional belief. If I may risk explaining it from my perspective: in other words, when you die—that’s it! I read somewhere that very few of her poems were published in her lifetime. Perhaps we have a Dickinson student out there who can share with readers a bit of her religious faith (if any)?
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 1/21/2012 at 9:01am

Dr. Hedrick,
I need to read the article in question, but I think you're going to be around for another 30 years, so don't start giving away too many things just yet.
Cody Hayes
Posted by Cody Hayes on 1/10/2012 at 12:34pm