Magnolia buds started crowding the tree outside my window this week. And obituaries started crowding my news feed.
“No man is an island,” John Donne wrote four centuries ago, and his words loop through my thoughts as I read through each obituary.
No man is an island, even though some people die alone.
No man is an island, even though their loved ones mourn alone.
No man is an island, even though we withdrew our bodies from each other’s grasp.
I look at my body. I look at the empty street outside. I look back at my screen, at the words that fill and fill and fill it, and never run out, and never stop, and will keep coming, coming, coming, for as long as this pandemic casts its shadow on our earth.
We are flesh, I think, and this knowledge shakes me. We are flesh, and I never understood all that it meant, before. When Adam saw Eve and said, “This time… flesh of my flesh,” did he recognize the vulnerability that they had in common? Did he understand that their shared flesh foretold the possibility of death?
Did he realize that the very commonality that made him cleave unto Eve could one day mean that un-cleaving would become the safer choice?
“Every man,” wrote Donne, “is a piece of the continent, a part of the main/ if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe/ is the less, … Any man’s death diminishes me,/ because I am involved in mankind./ And therefore never send to know for whom/ the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
I hear no bells tolling, here in my island of a home, in the safe place where I practice this new religion of un-cleaving. But every obituary is a bell in the dark, an invasion of pain. Each obituary tolls for a world that is broken.
This woman loved adventures, and she is dead now, she is gone. This man used architecture to transform people’s lives, and he is dead now, he is gone. This 100-year-old woman survived Hitler, and she is dead now, she is gone. This 49-year-old woman gave birth to twins mere years ago, and she is dead now, she is gone.
Gone, gone, gone: each name, each obituary, is a tear in the fabric of the world, a destruction that can never be undone. All the positivity in the world can never pep-talk this devastation away; all the silver linings in existence can’t truly make up for the people we have lost. And tomorrow there will be other names and other obituaries and other, newer losses, and more of our shared humanity “will be washed away” from the continent that is mankind.
I look up from my screen, and observe the fleshy buds on the magnolia tree. Up close, they can seem almost offensive in their lustiness and vigor. How dare they be so large, so solid, so eager to grab the space and the eye and the sunlight? How dare they herald spring in such a painfully diminished world?
But from afar, the buds look like nerot neshama, like the candles we light to mourn the dead. No man is an island, they tell me, and they’re swaying, swaying, swaying in the wind. No man is an island, and no man truly dies alone. Not as long as you mourn for them. Not as long as you allow this pain into your island.
And so, I do. I read. I mourn. I hear Donne’s bell in each obituary. I let our losses claim my thoughts and find a perch within my heart. In recent weeks I closed our doors to all our friends, and washed and scrubbed whatever we brought through them. But I allow the grief to come within unhindered, and I don’t try to make it cleaner, or less messy, to the touch.
No man is an island. No person should depart un-mourned.
But grief isn’t the only experience that connects us. I hear my phone pinging, and I know: someone wants to touch me, to come as close as sound waves will allow. I hear my computer’s sharp Zoom notification, and I know: someone is reaching out to me, through clouds and pixels and my screen. Like Donne’s bells, these sounds speak of connections. But their tune isn’t mournful. They are harbingers of joy.
In the Talmud (Berachot 3a), Rabbi Eliezer speaks of sounds that mark the passage of the night. When “a baby nurses from its mother’s breast and a wife converses with her husband,” we can tell that the last watch of the night is over, and that it’s time to rise and to recite the Shema. The rabbis ask: Can’t we tell the time by witnessing the sunrise? And they answer: Sounds are more reliable than light. Walls and shutters can keep away the latter. But sounds can reach us even in the dark.
The sounds they spoke of, tellingly, weren’t impersonal: they were the sounds and rhythms of other people’s lives. By relying on them, Rabbi Eliezer implies that we must not live like islands, since without other people in our orbit, we won’t be able to lead a full and conscious life. The Shema can be recited by a Jew in isolation. But we need each other’s sounds to tell us when it’s time to say it. We need each other to illuminate the dark.
When my phone rings, when my computer beeps, I think of Rabbi Eliezer’s crying babes and chatting spouses. I think of our shared humanity, and how it can penetrate all walls. I look at the magnolia buds outside my window, and observe their eagerness to live and bloom and fill the space. I observe, and think – here we are, still close despite our vulnerability. Here we are, choosing to cleave unto each other. Here we are, so connected, so alive.