Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Death’ Category

Life Studies

In Death, Dogs, Literature, Philosophy on October 27, 2019 at 9:00 am

I study lives. My text book is the biography. The first grown-up book I read was a biography of Mark Twain. I was, I think, in 6th grade. The most recent book read, finished a couple days ago, is Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s biography of Emerson, subtitled The Mind on Fire. Before that, earlier this summer, I re-read Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, How to Live. I read Bakewell as a set up to my summer reading of Montaigne’s long essay, An Apology of Raymond Sebond. That essay consumed much of my summer Colorado reading. Though I’ve been reading Montaigne for thirty years I’d not tackled Sebond and wanted to devote my time and energy to it uninterrupted, pencil and notepad in hand. But let’s return to studying lives.

Richardson’s Emerson is wonderfully written and ranks in my reading life as a high point. Half-way through I said to Carole, book in lap, “This book is changing my life.” Last year’s reading of Sue Prideaux’s I am Dynamite!, A Life of Nietzsche, had a similar effect. Richardson’s Emerson, however, reached deeper for a reason I’ve yet to comprehend. Interestingly, Nietzsche described Emerson as “a glorious, great nature, rich in soul and spirit…the author who has been the richest in ideas in this century.” Uncharacteristically, Nietzsche never turned against Emerson. I was so enthused by Richardson’s Emerson I found a used copy of his Thoreau, A Life of the Mind. I am excited to start that book.

Plutarch’s Lives

I study lives. An enduring life, rich and deep, is a wonderful thing and the shape and nature of such a thing has forever been of serious interest to me. Early on I recognized that some lives are, frankly, better lived and better expressed than others. Plutarch’s Lives, a study of lives in parallel, one virtuous, one lacking in virtue is the best ancient example of this notion. The rare exemplary life is unique–unique in its creativity, or perhaps in its impact on humanity. Or maybe, in the best case, in its goodness. Such a life is defined by character and intention; it is purposeful and directed; instructive and inspiring. How better to devote my reading life? I do not seek distraction. I do not seek entertainment. I seek to understand how this most important and precious thing, life itself, is to be best exercised, best experienced, best designed. How to live is the essence of creativity.

* * *

There is something I’ve noticed shared by many of these lives, something important.

Toward the end of Richardson’s biography he summarizes some of the lessons Emerson learned in later life. He writes: “At the core of Emerson’s life and work is a core of these impressions, bound together. They are not arguments or hypotheses….these are the perceptions that Emerson retains.” He continues with a list, starting…:

“The days are gods. That is, everything is divine. Creation is continuous. There is no other world; this is all there is. Everyday is the day of judgement.” [My italics.]

The list continues however I want to focus on these particular lessons as they are often shared by other lives I’ve studied. Nietzsche, for instance, had his “Theory of Eternal Return.” “Da Capo!—Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning.” In perfect health, one should “crave nothing more fervently” than the “eternal return of one’s life,” the same life down to the very last detail. With this Groundhog Day idea at the forefront of thought one will live moment by moment with the expectation that should the moment be repeated it would be agreeable by design. In this fashion, to be Emersonian about it, everyday is the day of judgement. I cannot imagine a way of being more present in the world.

H.D. Thoreau

Or consider the last days of Thoreau. Friend and neighbor Parker Phillsbury visited Henry David a few days before his death. “You seem so near the brink of the dark river,” Pillsbury said, “that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” Thoreau summed up his life and philosophy in response: “One world at a time.”

One world at a time, indeed. No concern about future reward or punishment. No effort wasted on what cannot be known. Just a focus on this world, here and now. A major theme of the important and creative lives I’ve studied is the theme of a cultivated and nurtured life devoted to living in the present. These are nerve-end lives, sparking and full of energy, thirsty for experience and immediacy.

I come to these ruminations from a place of sorry and darkness. I lost my beloved Lucy girl recently. This is not a thing I am prepared to talk about here, except for the following. My days with Lucy over the last few years were marked by a deep and conscious appreciation of our lives together. Many a morning walk I watched her and acknowledged that this was not lasting, that someday our lives, like all lives, would end in separation. I was, with painful awareness, searing moments into my consciousness, thereby stamping them with all the more value and potency. In her death I turn with gratitude for these moments of present awareness. Gratitude cannot assuage fresh grief but it is a degree of balm.

The days are gods and we are best obliged to honor them with an awareness and a presence. Do not take them for granted. Embrace each moment, turning from nothing. Such is divinity in the making.

My cousin Neal.

In Death, Family, Memoir, Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 23, 2018 at 8:00 am

I am an only child. Growing up, my cousins, Neal and Diane, were the closest I had to siblings. Like a lot of families who are spread out, our lives intersected only occasionally after we grew up and had families of our own. Then a few years ago, as Carole and I were traversing the country, we had the opportunity to see more of them and their spouses. For instance, this past October Carole and I stopped and visited while heading east from Colorado. It was a wonderful visit, with much laughter and love. A couple of weeks after we left, Neal was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died last week. I spoke with him shortly after the diagnosis. He was in good spirits and told me that he was accepting the hand he’d been dealt. I wrote him a note shortly after. In his memory, I share it with you below.

__________________________________________

Dear Neal ~ I want to tell you a story. I might have told you this before, so please excuse me if I’m repeating myself.

The story goes back many many years to my 8th birthday. As you know I was born in early October and I remember the day being crisp with a clear-blue sky. You probably remember my best friends, Rick and Jeff Erickson. It was my birthday and I was walking across my backyard to their house when out of nowhere the following question presented itself: If I die tomorrow, would my life have been well spent? Over the years I’ve shared this incident with many people. They often look at me askance and say something like, My what an odd little boy you must have been! Of course you may laugh and nod your head in agreement. Regardless, that moment changed the course of my life. Consequently, I have spent much of my life thinking about what a well-lived life should look like. I want you to know the part you’ve played in helping me answer that question.

When I reflect upon the proper well-lived life I think of a life of principal, a life of patience, and kindness, and steadfastness. It is a modest life, devoted to enduring values. A life built on virtue. When I reflect upon the proper well-lived life, I think of you. You stand tall, in my opinion, as a model of the proper life. You are devoted to family, and have a wide circle of friends. You seem to have herculean patience and tolerance. I’ve never known you to utter a cross or mean-spirited word. You laugh easily. You pursue excellence and have demonstrated the courage of going your own way, following your own vision and scheme of things. Most of us aspire to be a better person. It is a project for us, a work in process. You on the other hand simply are a better person. It seems to come naturally for you. Like all masters, you make something difficult appear easy. You have a grace in that way and I greatly admire it.

One of my hero philosophers said that the length or brevity of a life is of little importance in the grand scheme of things. What is important, however, is how the life is lived. Is it a life devoted to the good, to, “a life of virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness?” You have walked the walk, as they say. That is, you’ve shown me, and those around you, what these attributes look like in real-life practice, and I am forever indebted to you for that.

Thank you and with love,

Your cousin.

_________________________________________

A closing comment. Neal responded to my note as I expected, with quiet modesty, writing, “I’ve always tried to do what mom and dad instilled in us and I guess over time it just became my nature.” I encourage you to write to someone you love and tell them what they mean to you.

 

“Indian…Moose.”

In Death, Dogs, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life on September 24, 2018 at 1:04 pm

On his deathbed in Concord, Mass., Henry David Thoreau, drifting in and out of consciousness, muttered two works, “Indian…Moose” and died. His mind had gone to Maine and his adventures in the Great North Woods. I thought of Thoreau on this morning’s run. Lucy and I have made this run up the ridge all but two mornings since arriving in Colorado over four months ago. It has taken that long for me to build the endurance to make the run up the mountainside without stopping. I am soon to turn 63 and have the lungs of a 63 year old. Too, there is the matter of being at 9075 feet elevation.

I thought of Thoreau because, if I am lucky, perhaps on my deathbed my mind will turn to these mornings with my dog, these mountains, the chill of the valley shadow and the wild brilliance of sunrise as we crest the ridge. “Come ‘on, Lucy girl,” I call as we get up top. She will have stopped to sniff a tree or chase a chipmunk. One morning last week I spotted a red fox sitting in a beam of morning light. The fox saw me but didn’t move. They are frequently bold if nothing else. I called Lucy and gave a little sprint to distract her. She caught up and did not notice the fox, fortunately. There is a sign at the trailhead stating that the area is populated by moose. Not a morning run has gone by where I don’t wonder what I’ll do if we encounter one. Lucy once spotted a moose from the truck when we were in Maine. She went nuts. This morning two bald eagles soared above us, chirping one to the other.

I have talked here at “…the house…” about my affinity for the morning and won’t belabor it again. I think it is to society’s considerable detriment that our morning is consumed with rushing off to work, with rushing kids off to school, with missing the sunrise. This is a curse we have placed on ourselves, the damage of which is only comprehended when we are released from it to realize the deliberate potential of another day of existence. From the outset our days are numbered and there is no double ledger accounting of where the balance lies.

* * *

As a reader of “…the house…” you are aware of my life quest to live a proper life. In that pursuit I have considered any number of responses to the question, How to Live? Consider my Zen studies and my meditation practice, for instance. In that spirit I have again signed up for International Stoic Week. This year’s theme is living happily.

What is a happy life? It is peacefulness and lasting tranquillity, the sources of which are a great spirit and a steady determination to hold fast to good decisions. How does one arrive at these things? By recognizing the truth in all its completeness, by maintaining order, moderation and appropriateness in one’s actions, by having a will which is always well-intentioned and generous, focused on reason and never deviating from it, as lovable as it is admirable.                                                                                                                                                                                                            Seneca, Letters, 92.3

                            

I invite you to follow the above link and spend seven days living like a Stoic. I hope to share some of my insights and experiences here and invite you to do so as well.

Thanks for reading!

The Most Simple Existence

In Death, The Examined Life, Wisdom on December 17, 2015 at 7:45 pm

Consider the task at hand: purging…again. We moved to Maine six years ago, and in doing so left a 4500 square foot house and seventeen acres in Maryland, south of the Mason-Dixon. In Maine we gathered no acreage and settled into a condo weighing-in at around 1400 square feet. That was major purging, and it felt good. And now, as we prepare for a nomadic next year, we purge, again. And it feels good again. Come Spring (target date: May 1, 2016) we move into a two hundred (or so) square feet trailer and a truck. But that is not what I want to focus on right now. What I am involved in at this moment is, well, my legacy. You see, I am combing through every item I own, clothing, books, gear, and so forth, and asking: recycle, donate, shred, landfill, or keep? It is this business of “keep” that I want to talk about.

I recycle everything possible. I donate the other stuff, or sell stuff on Craig’s List, and so on. Papers out of date I shred. Leave no trace! But what do I keep, and why do I keep it? That is what I am thinking about. I am thinking about what will be left behind after I die. DIE. Yes, I am thinking about death tonight. Is there any other subject, really?

Consider the box on the floor I filled today. It is a Time Capsule, nothing less. It will go into storage and, probably, sit there for years, then perhaps get moved, unopened, to someplace else, until finally, after I’ve died, one of my children will remark, “Hey, what about that box dad left in storage? What’s in it?” And that, friends, is the state of my mind this evening. Do you ever go there? You will.

I turned sixty years old a couple of months ago and it is just now starting to settle on me. But let’s not get depressed. The fact is, the stuff in this box I’m not purging is good stuff, wonderful stuff. There you will find letters and cards from my children. Years of them! And notes from my bride, who calls me “lovey.” There you will find a few awards and medals from my youth. And pictures of my dogs, our dogs! You know how we love our dogs, Maggie, Lucy-Girl, and the rest.

You’ll also find a box of money. Don’t get excited, not MONEY!, just money. I got into the habit, during all those years of traveling, of bringing home foreign currency and collecting it in a cigar box. There you’ll find my travel resume, as is represented by country and continent. Yuan from China. Sterling from Britain, Pesos from Argentina. Whatever. It is nothing now, nothing but play money for my grandchildren, or perhaps great-grandchildren, the family historians.

I think the most pure existence is to be found in the most simple existence. There is elegance to that, like a beautiful equation, or a line perfectly drawn on rice paper. The alms bowl begging monk has his own challenging complexities: where will I find my next meal? And, conversely, the corporate CEO abruptly wakes one morning to realize that the things she has accumulated, the things she thought she owned, now own her, including the shareholders. Somewhere in the middle one finds the sweet spot.

And where is that, exactly, that sweet middle way? This box I’m filling, the one to be left behind, will it provide a clue? Perhaps, but for me alone. Everyone must find a personal balance, an individual middle way. Nature will bring us to a center, if we allow it, but that release is not easy. Now, I train for it, the middle way, the release–that longing clarity, Camus pined for. I am confident in this journey, a simple pilgrim.

Living as long as you should.

In Books, Death, Life, Literature, The Examined Life on May 11, 2014 at 4:38 pm

There was a birder at the park this morning. I spotted him as Lucy and I rounded the path. He was walking a bike. He occasionally stopped and lifted his binoculars and peered into a tree. He was wearing bike shorts and a helmet and was sporting large rubber band-like straps below his kneecaps. “Red tail?” I asked, sauntering past, a bird disappearing over the trees. “Kestrel,” he corrected. I moved on. He lingered. Lucy darted ahead. There is an unmatched quality to a Sunday early morning.

* * *

I returned two books to shelves this week, actually, to be precise, one book to the shelf, one to the library. I have tried to read Angle of Repose Wallace Stenger’s 1971 Pulitzer-winning novel three times. I advanced almost two hundred pages this go ’round (out of 600) but decided to retrace my steps. It lacked a certain deeper context. Or rather, it–this context–escaped me. A book has to appeal on multiple levels. Angle of Repose seemed lacking in dimension. No doubt my problem, not the book’s. The other book, The Second Book of Tao, was poor timing. Some books, like some foods, require the necessary appetite. Bailing on a book no longer troubles me.

The last novel I devoured was the second book in the six book series, My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Like many other readers of this series (3000 pages!), I cannot get enough, but cannot explain exactly why. Zadie Smith says she needs his books “like crack.” James Woods, writing in The New Yorker, says, [Knausgaard] wants us to inhabit the ordinariness of life, which is sometimes visionary…, sometimes banal…and sometimes momentous…but all of it perforce ordinary because it happens in the course of a life, and happens, in different forms, to everyone. He notices everything—too much, no doubt—but often lingers beautifully.” It feels time to get book three. I have the appetite.

                                   * * *

I cleaned out dad’s room the day after he died. All of his belongings packed into three grocery-store banana boxes and four trash bags. I took the bags of clothes to Good Will. The boxes remain in the back of my truck. Dad never read Thoreau, but he understood living simply. The sage lives as long as he should, not as long as he can, says Montaigne.  Dad, unknowingly, was a great philosopher.

   * * *

I return from my morning walk with Lucy and declare to Carole that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. This is a revelation after years of fruitlessly attempting to cultivate a phantom desire, as if living up to a responsibility. “Do you mean religious bone in your body?” she asked. “No, I know I don’t have that,” I say. She nods and says it’s the same with her. We leave it at that. Know thyself, counseled the Greeks.

Don Bruns

In Death, Family, Life, Memoir on May 6, 2014 at 12:42 pm
Dad

Dad

 

My father, about whom I have written extensively here, died last week. He was 92. He died in his bed peacefully. No machines, no tubes, no wires. I was with him and was able to tell him one last time that I was proud of him and that I loved him. He went out like he lived, without drama, understated, quietly.

I wrote this essay about him 23 years ago. The Baltimore Sun picked it up and published it on Father’s Day. Dad and Mom came to our house for lunch that Sunday and I read the essay to him. He had not seen it and sat quietly as I read. It was my Father’s Day gift to him. I reprint it below as tribute to my father.

_______________________________________________________________

 

My father cannot throw a baseball overhand. He has a bad shoulder. I recollect as a youngster him trying a couple of times, but he threw awkwardly, like a young child. He stood there, looking apologetic and rubbing his shoulder. “It’s been a problem all my life, this shoulder of mine. But I can throw pretty darn fast underhand,” he said. So we played catch a while, he throwing underhand, I on the look out for friends who might see us and tease me.

That was a long time ago. He still throws underhand. I see him with his grandchildren. I am suspicious of the problem of the bad shoulder. He has never otherwise complained of shoulder problems. I think he never learned to throw a ball properly and is too embarrassed to admit it. One is taught to throw a ball. My children are learning now: Plant one foot, elbow high, follow through. It does not come naturally to most mortals.

My father was born in 1922. His was the rugged life of a youngster in Indiana during the Depression. The only picture I ever saw of him as a child was a faded snapshot of him and his two brothers kneeling in a sandbox, all looking typically boyish. He wore a beret, tilted. It must have seemed exotic, a beret, not a cap. They seem to be squinting into the sun and their clothes are ragged.

From  what I know of his youth it did not have much room for ball playing with his dad. Like many of that era his father scraped for odd jobs here and there. He did not much comfort his family, my grandfather, but rather brought home the grief and struggle that was his experience. Once, my father told me, his dad hit him in the face with the back of his hand. It was at the dinner table. I think he told me to convey his own struggle, not only in growing up, but with fathering. Like ball playing, he was never shown properly how it is done.

I sense the struggle in my father not to be like his father. Each generation rejects the former generation in its individual way. He brought to fatherhood his best, a true heart and a deep character.

A man given to working with his hands, Dad was forever building me boxes and cars and toys in his workshop: building new things when properly he had other work to do. One of the first and best memories I have is sitting on the gray concrete slab of his workshop mixing water and sawdust in a cup with a long nail, while he worked away on something or other.

I inherited his engineering ingenuity. That is, I am pretty good at figuring a solution to a problem, but the skills are lacking. I tended to demean them in my youth. It was part of my statement of generational independence. The bookcase he recently built for me, now proudly displayed in my living room, is a monument not only to his ability but to my incredulity. How does one build something like this? When he gave it to me he ran his palm along the edge. I saw his knowledge and intelligence reflected in the grace of his hand over the wood, like a skater across ice. He built three houses in his time, two from the ground up, one essentially alone. How does one build a house? The answer is imponderable to me. He would have taught me his skill if I had let him.

My mother, whenever my father was doing something for me, would fondly advise: “Remember this when you have children.” She was, of course, referring to the devotion with which my father granted his time and skill. I think often of my mother’s statement. I have children of my own, and I am learning to appreciate what was my father’s gift to me: the best he could muster, even if it meant having to pitch underhand, and his time whenever I asked for it. One must be brave to be devoted so heartily to the next generation, and one must be loving and trusting of the future.

                                                                                                Originally Published in the Baltimore Sun, Father’s Dad, June 15, 1991