Last moments

An orange-brown butterfly flits about in the darkening twilight. There are no flowers hereabouts, but perhaps the butterfly has followed me or is looking for moisture from the rapidly-falling dew before retiring (I don’t know where) for the night. I follow its zagging path a moment before walking away. My eye catches a single orange-brown leaf on the ground. For a rueful moment I think it is the butterfly, fallen. I pick up the leaf and stare at it. Perhaps, once, it was a butterfly.

Autumn foretells the end of leaves, and insects; the two, perhaps, are not so far apart in space or time. Any more than we are from them. The Chinese and Japanese poets considered the cry of the cicadas a telling sign of autumn’s progress, for the unknowing creatures did not realize the looming fate before them as they sang in cheerful ignorance. Do we not do likewise, wondering how fruitful (or failing) was our most recent occupation or business?

To think in terms of what occupies us and how worthwhile or short-fallen were our lastest efforts is vain and futile. Perhaps our last moments will be preoccupied with an unpaid bill, an unsent message, a remorseful memory, an unresolved doubt, a piece of music. It will probably not be the emptiness of the cicada’s mind, or that of the butterfly or the leaf, not the “no mind” that we spent our busy lives trying to attain.

Old Age

I picked up a local newspaper the other day — I seldom do — and my eye fell on the obituary page, where pathos emboldens survivors of loved ones to make public their most private sentiments. I have never understood why a notice bought from a newspaper and for the consumption of unknown and unworthy eyes should bring solace to the survivors. Remembrance is a strong emotion and worthy, but dissipated and scattered by publicity.

I read a poignant item that reported the departed one as having no survivors or kin but many friends. The item went on to enumerate them, some twenty in number, faceless names further effacing the departed one.

This whole business reminded me of Seneca’s little essay, “On Old Age,” wherein he breates a servant for the sad condition of a certain tree but is told to his chagrin that the tree is very well cared for but very old.

At any time, on any day, we have potentially reached the end of our course, says Seneca, and if God adds the morrow, well, then, we shall accept it gladly, enjoying a windfall. But instead of an obituary notice, the solitary ought to consider the resolution of Alexander Pope’s concluding lines on publicity in his inestimable poem, “Ode to Solitude”:

Thus let me live, unheard, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.