Memento Mori

by

Today the effort should be done,

Who knows if  ‘morrow death will come?

— from The Word of the Buddha

Since antiquity, serious thinkers have kept reminders of their mortality close at hand, to help free their minds of earthly bonds and distractions.  Frequently they would be portrayed holding a skull, or having one on their desk, their memento mori, remember that you will die.

To the Anchoress of Sterling, they come unasked.

The Anchoress sat working by the window, next to the new basket of spring bulbs that are vigorously sprouting.  The Anchoress turned from her squint and spoke to me.  “For the past three minutes I lost the ability to write.”

“How so?”

“Three times I tried to write a note.  Each time, when I looked at it, it was as though I was looking at a foreign language.  I didn’t know what the letters were or what the words meant.”

“Is the inability gone entirely now, as though it never was?  Or, are there remaining effects?”

“There are remaining effects.  I am repeating letters too many times when I spell words.  And I am confused, still.”

After more pointed questioning, she asked, “Do you think that I am going to lose the ability to write, permanently?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll just move on to dictating, as we talked about.”

“It may not be for a long time yet.  You’ll have better days, and worse.”

“It’s not how I thought it would be.  I thought it would be there one minute, and then it would be gone.  But it’s more complicated than that.”

“You mean thinking that you’re writing someting correctly, and it being wrong, and then realizing that it’s wrong.”

“That’s it.  It’s exactly like you said, What was the word?”

“Interface.”

“Yes, it’s exactly like an  interface problem.  Like with the computer.  I know what I am trying to say.”

“But it just doesn’t come out right.”

“It’s very upsetting.”

“I know.  And scary.  I think we need to concentrate more on the more important things, while you can still write, and spend less time on the unimportant.  Only do the unimportant things after you are unable to make progress on the important work.”

“You’re right.  But there are some things I want to do.”

“It’s important that you follow your interests.”

“You’ll have to remind me, prompt me, because I can’t remember.  You’ll have to come close and sit with me, and help me along.  Once I’m writing, I love it and I can lose myself for hours.”

“I know.”

“It’s strange that you can have something be so important emotionally, that you are reluctant to approach it.”

“But it’s a very natural response, a paradox.”

Philippe de Champaigne, Life, Death, Time

Vanitas, Philippe de Champaigne , 1671

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