Emily, Covid and the Ultimate Exit–musings from an expat in Portugal

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Editor’s Note: The world keeps on turning. In spite of the chaos of the last year, we’re moving forward and, whenever possible, even with a little panache. Kurt Stewart, our writer-at-large in Europe, recently bought a 230-year-old house in the center of Portugal. With the help of a European Union grant, he and his wife have embarked on a project for sustainable tourism. He’ll be bringing his insights to our readers in Hawaii and around the world, telling the stories that matter from his perch on the Iberian Peninsula as a regular feature to Hawaii Reporter.

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As we live through the Time of COVID, I can’t help but ponder our existence, which requires all 99,9% of my enlightened self (sadly, the remaining 0.1 percent is still missing).

There is the pall of death, or its counterfeit, hanging in the air, and lamentations, like those in the Tibetan book of the Dead (“Please guide all beings from this swamp of cyclic existence”!!) are heard from every shore and mountaintop. So, if the mind does turn to morbid thoughts from time to time, that is to be expected. 

Anyway, this is just to segue to a recent fascination I’ve found with some of the poems of Emily Dickinson. A wonderful discovery, to be sure. I think the woman must have been some kind of mystic, or at the very least a person of exceptional inspiration writing as she did as a single woman in the mid-19th century. She had her finger on the pulse of death, often it appears because many of her some 1,780 poems deal with the subject of our ultimate exit, stage left.

One poem I’ll share with you here blew me to bits when I read it. The title of the poem alone astonishes – “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died”. How incredible – in a few words, she captures the strange absurdity that the singular event of death visits upon us. With breathtaking insight, she pins death to the wall like a moth specimen and invites us to examine its details. And she does so through the voice of the cadaver that is lying in its coffin at its own wake!

There is a line describing the fly, this uninvited visitor that buzzes around the deceased, which just floored me: “With Blue – uncertain – Stumbling Buzz -” a haiku-like perfect snapshot of this moment.

Here it is in its entirety – you may not see what I see here, or even react as I did. Poetry, as you well know, is in the eye of the beholder. But I share for sharing’s sake, as a fellow seeker who has also pondered the meaning of life, death and everything in between!

Bluebottle fly

The “Bardo Thodol”, the original Tibetan title for the work known as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” means “between” and refers to the transitional period of the soul between death and rebirth. Maybe that’s what COVID is – an in-between stage for all of us in transition. Ask not for whom the fly buzzes, it buzzes for thee!

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –

The Stillness in the Room

Was like the Stillness in the Air –

Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –

And Breaths were gathering firm

For that last Onset – when the King

Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away

What portion of me be

Assignable – and then it was

There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –

Between the light – and me –

And then the Windows failed – and then

I could not see to see –

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Kurt Stewart, our writer-at-large in Europe

Kurt Stewart is a writer, educator and entrepreneur who has been telling stories about the places he has lived and worked for more than 35 years.  

After leaving his native San Francisco in 1981, he began his writing career in Paris where he wrote feature articles for Paris Passion magazine and USA Today. He later moved to Portugal where he taught in the School of Film and Television at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa in Porto. He spent several years in Malaysia working with the Ministry of Education training teachers in the public schools. While there, he wrote travel stories for the Hawaii Reporter. His latest venture involves country living in the heart of Portugal’s still undiscovered central region.

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