“All My Friends Are Dead.”

Never underestimate how much it can delight an author to hear from an appreciative reader.

On this date five years ago, I had the opportunity to meet the author of a book I really enjoyed.

It was the day after I had attended the 2016 Templeton Prize Ceremony honouring Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks when I set off to Oxford to meet the author of a biography of another Templeton Prize winner, Cecily Saunders.

Saunders’ biographer Shirley du Boulay was in her early 80s. She had received my handwritten letter of approximately eight pages praising her for her beautiful biography of the founder of the modern hospice and palliative care movement in the U.K. and eventually sent me an email in reply.

Naturally, I was thrilled when she invited me to her Oxford home for tea should I ever be passing through.

I took a cab from the Oxford bus station to her address and arrived just before 1 o’clock.

I rang the bell and, a moment later, she answered.

As I followed her inside, she hurriedly began to prepare a light lunch even though I’d insisted on only coming for tea.

The table was set in a lovely manner and there was a bottle of rosé, meats, potato salad, green salad, bread, and butter.

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“If we die, we want to die together.”

Today I listened to this podcast episode that one of my best friends recommended in which Rahf Hallaq, a 21-year-old English language and literature student, speaks about the terror of experiencing the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

“She’s so articulate in humanizing herself and her community,” my friend told me in offering the recommendation.

When I listened, I was amazed. I think it is the first time that I ever cried while listening to a podcast. In fact, there were a couple occasions that I teared up while listening to Rahf share her story.

Apart from geopolitical calculations and political arguments, Rahf gives us a window into the impact that wider events are having on her own life in a way that is very concrete and personal.

In fact, Rahf’s testimony reminded me of what Eva Hoffman noticed about a Dutch Jewish woman who kept a diary during the Holocaust when she said, “Etty Hillesum lived at a time when the macrocosm of historical events almost completely crushed the microcosm of individual lives.”

Like Etty Hillesum, Rahf Hallaq, through this podcast episode, sought not so much to give a sweeping account of the political situation as to give us an account of her own soul.

It is moving to hear of her speak about her passion for books.

“My dad is the one who made the love of books grow inside me,” she reflects.

Then she shares about the impact of reading Orwell’s 1984 saying, “I mean, when you’re living under oppression, and when you read those books, you feel like you’re not the only one who’s going through this. You feel like these words are actually speaking about you and to you. They give you the power to talk about your own ideas after that.”

Naturally, she was totally devastated about the bombing of a local bookstore that was connected to so many memories for her and her friends.

In the episode, Rahf also speaks about how families in Gaza all huddle together in the same room during the airstrikes because, “If we die, we want to die together.”

Listening to her speak about how her dad used to try to tell her that the bombs were fireworks, in an effort to put her at ease, is also heartbreaking.

My friend was completely right. This story humanized Rahf and the people of Gaza.

It is hard to fathom the real lives of Gazans, but hopefully Rahf will be able to continue bearing witness to “the microcosm of individual lives” by sharing her own experiences with such candor and poise.



Thou shalt not kill a book

This evening I’m thinking about these passages from Areopagitica, John Milton’s defense of freedom of speech against the restrictions of his day:

[…] for books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth: and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.

[…]

We should be wary, therefore, what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom; and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself; slays an immortality rather than a life.

Why are these excerpts coming back to me tonight?

Three years ago on this date, I was attending an event hosted by the Montreal Press Club with keynote speaker Dr. Jordan Peterson to honour the inaugural “Freedom Award” recipient Raif Badawi.

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Are your affairs in order – now?

If you died today, how would people find your office, your bedroom, your bookshelves?

What would happen with your email, your social media, your bank accounts?

Who would you have wanted to forgive? To pay back? To return to with gratitude?

Many people cannot die well because of leading lives that are not yet in any meaningful order.

Before I take a trip, I often organize my bedroom and office so that – were I to die during the trip – my possessions would reflect my priorities and the order in which I had them would (hopefully) be a reflection of my soul when I had left them.

“Putting our affairs in order” has become an idiom for a one-time event when, in fact, we are all meant to put our affairs into order each day.

Augustine even described peace as “the tranquility of order.”

And so, if we want to eventually rest in peace, then we’ll need to live our lives in order.

You-Are-There-Reading At A Grave

In Anne Fadiman’s book Ex Libris, she has a chapter in which she explores the delights of what she calls You-Are-There-Reading experiences.

I’ve never equaled the sensory verisimilitude of my friend Adam, who once read the ninth book of the Odyssey, in Greek, in what is believed to be the Cyclops’s cave, a Sicilian grotto Homerically redolent of sheep turds. But I have read Yeats in Sligo, Isak Dinesen in Kenya, and John Muir in the Sierras. By far my finest You Are There hour, however, was spent reading the journals of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who led the first expedition down the Colorado River, while I was camped at Granite Rapids in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Ever since reading this, I have sought out my own You-Are-There-Reading experiences around the world. Naturally, some of these experiences have been at gravesites. There is nothing quite like reading poetry or correspondence aloud at a grave.

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Our Hypocrisy in Not Talking About Death

A friend of mine shared this evocative quotation with me spoken by the protagonist in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward:

“Come on, tell us, what are you most afraid of in the world now? Of dying! What are you most afraid of talking about? Of death! And what do we call that? Hypocrisy!”

It may take reading those lines over a few of times in order to be startled by them.

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