After 24 hours of deluge in NYC–public transportation flooded, cars floating on Brooklyn streets, raging rivers along railway tracks in Westchester, rainfall records broken–dawn brought mere drizzle under soggy gray skies on September 30th.  With umbrella stuffed into backpack, I ventured outside to attend a memorial service for a neighbor who’d died a few months previously on what happened to have been my birthday this past July. The service would be at the Quaker Meeting House in the Gramercy Park neighborhood.

This was a woman I very casually knew from our communal garden. When our paths would cross in the garden (surrounded by cherry tomatoes, climbing roses, stalks of rosemary) we’d amicably chat and exchange a few words; if we ran into one another on a neighborhood street, we’d do the same after which she’d mount her bike and ride away. She always seemed to have a bicycle beside her.

Here’s her New York Times obituary:

The entrance to the Meeting House is on Rutherford Street. It’s an unadorned, red brick building constructed in 1861, built by pacifists for pacifists. When I arrived a sprinkling of people of all ages were already seated around the large room on wide dark brown wood benches. On the dot of 12 the event began.

One by one, folks got up, found a microphone, and uttered a few words. Between these shortish comments was silence. Friends, family and neighbors told of  shared interests, protests attended, lives bursting with good causes and hard fights for social justice. Most of those in attendance were residents at our ten building complex.

The wide benches, the lack of flowers or photographs or music or religious hoopla, the teenage granddaughter recounting a memory, transcended the usual stock testimonials. I experienced a feeling of pride to be one of the group and when I noticed the dead neighbor’s resemblance on the face of her daughter, I was pierced by an arrow of posterity. The daughter, a woman in her fifties with a white pony tail, stood and recounted a few memories. She unfolded a sheet of paper so as to recite the poem “An Art of Losing” by Elizabeth Bishop, but words wouldn’t come, and she crumbled, went back and sat down beside her father–a stony-faced old, old man who’d been with the departed for 60 years–and let someone else take the paper from her hand and read:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.***

I don’t know why I’d made the effort to be in that room on a dismal, wet day; I don’t know why I shed such a Niagara of tears for almost a stranger; nor way I’m always so miffed by this Elizabeth Bishop’s poem?

The service concluded on the dot of 1. Forgoing the buffet lunch, I left. Glancing back through the black fence at the Society of Friends Meeting House (where profound silence is meant to replace music or a minister’s liturgy) I saw a place that (if nothing else) encourages resolution of conflict through peaceful means. Though I’d hardly known my fellow gardener, it happened to be September 30th, which happens to be a consequential date of mourning for me, making attendance at a memorial seem apt.

September 30th had been the birthday of a great friend of mine–Rie Albertsen–a beautiful Danish woman with a dazzling mind and lightening wit who’d unexpectedly died a decade ago in Rhode Island.

September 30th is also the anniversary of the death in Athens of my great mentor and friend Lily Mack whom I’d memorialized in Sylph Edition’s Cahiers #12 “Lost and Found”* and then again in Notting Hill Edition’s “Found and Lost.”** Both of these iconic friendships (begun in 1970 in Greece) have proved irreplaceable. Each had simmered in its own pot like delicious, never dull, soup for over forty years. The ache of these absences hasn’t lessened, in fact, the opposite has been true, as more and more time passes.

Planning to pick up something for lunch on the way home, I turned west among puddled sidewalks. There were more puddles in the street, puddles on the soggy grounds inside the 15th street fence surrounding the Meeting House. Half way to 3rd Avenue I noticed a paint brush lying on wet sidewalk. It was maybe nine inches long, used up, the kind of cheap brush given with the cheapest child’s water color paint set–the kind whose hairs fall out or stick together, or stiffen and never soften up again.

I’d almost walked passed but stopped short. I  remembered  how much ‘junk’ I’d seen Lily bend and pick up from the street, or the garbage, or the beach–rusted safety pins, a plastic doll with no head, broken pencils, half crushed gardenia blossoms–during the many decades of our friendship and how, after a time, I’d acquired this same habit–a murky white marble, the Queen of Hearts from a deck of playing cards, a rusted crucifix. Looking at the sad paintbrush, I wondered if Lily’s spirit had put it in my path as a test? I thought of a poem by William Empson that Lily loved and had often recited, that had also always miffed me too –

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

It is not the effort nor the failure tires.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.****

 –and bent  to retrieve the water-logged brush that I put it into my jacket pocket for safekeeping.


***[One Art”  by Elizabeth Bishop, 1911-1979*]

****[“Missing Dates” by William Empson, 1906-1984]

*[Lost and Found]

**[Found and Lost]