Transfiguration

One Year (Almost).

Often, I have so much I want to articulate that it renders me mute. I fall short of expressing myself adequately, of finding just the right words, and so I find myself retreating into the perfection of silence. Like the smooth, white hill outside our home after a midnight snowfall. No footprints, nothing to interpret, no interference. Just quietness. There is beauty in that, but also a precarious vulnerability, knowing that at any moment, a branch from a towering oak might fall or a stubborn car might insist on making tracks. And then, the cycle will begin again. The searching for the words, the feelings, the reconciling of the factors beyond my control.

I know Russell struggled with this same tenuous feeling, but in a slightly different way. He had so much to articulate, that he could not record enough. His fiction-writing sessions were better described in hours instead of words, as he often deleted as much as he documented. He could craft a sentence for the better part of a night and then shake his head because it still wasn’t exactly what he wanted to say. He felt this way about much of his life. His existence. Russell always feared that he would not live to be an old man. He wanted to leave a legacy of words. Perfect words. He was the consummate artist, always trying to capture, to refine, to master. There was an observable, painful elegance about his daily pilgrimage. And though he was never satisfied with the product of his work, he was soothed by the ritual of it. The pursuit of the thing. The longing of the reward.

In between Sisyphean efforts, Russell filled time by recording the simplest things; the weather, the boldness of his tea, a joke exchanged between innocent siblings, the time he woke up that day. I wonder if he did this for monastic practice or rather to be in the right place at the right time in ready anticipation of the epiphany he patiently sought. His daily reconciliation reminded me of how I feel when I think about the universe. Is the beauty in the vast greatness of the infinite or in the nuanced smallness of the tiniest feature?

While driving to work recently, I was listening to NPR’s Performance Today, like I often do. Like he often did. The featured work was Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss. When I heard the host describe the work as a detailed depiction of the death of an artist, my instinct was to change the station, revert to quiet stillness. But instead, I listened, as it seemed honorable and right to bear the weight of the revelation. Strauss, among many others, shared Russell’s quest for the seemingly unattainable.The search for perfection on this Earth in the creation of something beautiful, something lasting and meaningful.

In a letter to his friend, Strauss explained the idea behind Death and Transfiguration:

…the idea came to me to write a poem describing the last hours of a man who had striven for the highest ideals. The sick man lies in bed breathing heavily and irregularly in his sleep. Friendly dreams bring a smile to the sufferer; his sleep grows lighter; he awakens. Fearful pains once more begin to torture him, fever shakes his body. When the attack is over and the pain recedes, he recalls his past life; his childhood passes before his eyes; his youth with its striving and passions and then, while the pains return, there appears to him the goal of his life’s journey, the idea, the ideal which he attempted to embody, but which he was unable to perfect because such perfection could be achieved by no man. The fatal hour arrives. The soul leaves his body, to discover in the eternal cosmos the magnificent realization of the ideal that could not be fulfilled here below.”

It was difficult to remember my husband’s last hours, described so accurately and compassionately by a man a century his elder. But the heartache I initially felt recalling the shadowy time between here and gone was subtly replaced by feelings of something new. Something that felt almost like comfort. Like Russell was vindicated in his quest for the thing that can only be revealed in the transition to what lies just beyond us. The transition to something impossible to know before its actual revelation. Perhaps Russell glimpsed the perfection he sought and was satisfied for that moment. Perhaps it is possible that when he unclenched his hands in those final moments and repeatedly whispered, “OK…OK…,” he was finally at peace.

It is my hope that in the straddling of the two worlds, Russell felt his soul complete. And that he was proud of his life’s work: his goals, his family, his accomplishments. It is my hope that he was enveloped in a coherent wholeness that transcended and outshined his greatest fears and doubts as an artist and, most importantly, as a husband, a son, and a father.

Because, if that is so, then I can also find comfort in not having the words and in breathing the quiet stillness.

Stillness