Thursday, June 10, 2010

What My Imagination Told Me

When it's over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.
- Mary Oliver

I was not present when my father died. Yet I had so wanted to be there.

I struggled in the weeks and months to follow. Not least because circumstances had denied me the opportunity to be there when he departed.

So the loss was double. 

In the midst of my mourning a friend appeared. She floated into my life as a message in a bottle. I didn’t know her from before. I don’t know her now. She was one of those brief acquaintances that comes. And then leaves again.

We talked about this, about the other. Then I told her about my dad. How I grieved not just his death, but also missing that last farewell.

“If you had the choice, how would you have liked it to be?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Just imagine what could have happened. And then tell me about it.”

“What could have happened?” I said, and wondered what my preferences had to do with it. My dad was gone. I had not seen him off. Facts were facts.

“ Just play around with it,” she said, “just make it up.”

Reluctantly I let images appear. Of how I had wanted it to be. If there was a choice, that is.  
“I’m sitting in a chair,” I said, “next to his bed. I lay my hand on his forehead.”

There was a pause.


I stretched my neck. Tried to sit more upright in the chair. Was this serious? Did she really want me to produce some make-belief story?

She spotted my bewilderment and tried to ease the situation. “You’re sitting in a chair,” she repeated. “You lay a hand on his forehead.”

“I’m not sure it was my hands,” I said. I could see a pair of hands, but I was confused as to who they belonged to. I looked down at my own fingers. As I spoke I felt the warmth of my dad’s skin against my palms. “Perhaps I’m holding his hand,” I said. “And then there is something else on his forehead.”

I tried to grasp what my imagination told me.

Gradually an image of a bird appeared.  A feathered creature perched on my dad’s forehead. A quiet little thing, patiently waiting. 

Then I could see the hands again, but were they my hands? No. They were not hands at all, they were wings. Then a pair of hands appeared, waving. My dad’s hands and the wings. The wings and his hands. The two images were one. The waving and the flapping, the flapping and the waving. I couldn’t discern which was which. But this I knew for sure. Here was my dad. Waving.

In the New York Times article “Write Till You Drop” Annie Dillard writes “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

“Strange seizures beset us,” she says, “ Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Selzer loves the glistening peritoneum, Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl's drawers visible when she's up a pear tree.”

Whenever I read this article I learn something about my astonishment. I stop and go back. What appears to amaze me again and again invariably involves the imagination. The strength of it. The intensity. For better or worse I may add, for I have also knowledge of the latter. I have experienced that reality is relative. And that facts come in many forms.

My father’s departure is no longer a trauma. Whenever I think of this moment, I see the hands and the wings. As the bird lifts, there is the flapping. And the waving.

And I realize my imagination is sacred, for it has far more knowledge than I will ever have.

(And then, of course, I am curious. For what is your astonishment?)

Mary Oliver, When Death Comes, from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).

Photos © Grete S. Kempton


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "And I realize my imagination is sacred, for it has far more knowledge than I will ever have." Oh Grete, this idea is beyond anything I've considered. In fact, just last night I was realizing, I think - I think it was realizing, that my imagination lacks and rather I create only from the roots of real. But all things have the roots of real, don't they? All things imagined have a genesis in the real world. And so I am not astonished by this, so much.

    But riding home tonight from work I listened to Canada Public Radio and there was a program on about beauty, Dostoevsky, art and life, and I shouted at the radio, Truth! Beauty! Truth and Beauty! I am astonished by what feels like a gift to me these days, how I see truth and beauty in everything, how I yearn it, how I want so badly for things to be simplified and broken down into very real and significant components, like grass and trees and wind. I am astonished that I missed it for so many years. I am grateful and yet astonished, that I see it now.


  3. Ces -

    Thank you for visiting! Your words were beautiful!

    Erin -

    Your words, your words. As always - intriguing. Digging right in.

    But what are the roots of the real? Do we not each have our own perception of what is reality? Even truth and beauty are private ideas, none, I think, with one specific answer. Perhaps that is why looking for truth and beauty is so important, for we cannot find it written in a book. Each and one has to go hunting.

    And so I see you as the woman with a bow and arrow, among grass and wind and trees. And so I am a woman with a bow and arrow. The grass wet, green, lush. The wind mild. The trees tall, but embracing.

    And all around us are are all, out on the same mission.


  4. As ever I find my heart over-full with words when I come here Grete, somehow you have tapped into a well of something so essential to my very being.

    Imagination is sacred. Absolutely. It takes us on journeys we may never otherwise dare to go on ... somehow we feel safer knowing that we can steer ... alter course if need be into safe harbours. And yet unleashed our imaginations can take us ... well ... almost beyond what we may have believed possible.

    Sometimes it is tempting to use it to re-make history. And I recognise that there is value in exploring what might have been. We can learn from it ... even in retrospect. There is no harm in wishing. xx Jos

  5. My dearest Grete, you talk of imagination in a way that I know it so well. It is the one thing that has accompanied me loyally through life, even until this very day.

    I think human beings are equipped with so many 'tools' to help them face all the typhoons and storms in life. One side of the brain that keeps us awake with logic, a beating heart as a reminder of our purposes, tears to soothe the pain, and of course, imagination to help put a smile back on our face.

    Life has given me tough times in the past, it still is and probably will always be that way. But somewhere along the line I was astonished at how much it has also given me. All the beauty which I have seemed to ignore, how I have let shadows clouded my better judgments. How I have concealed the truth from my own eyes.

    So personally, my so-called 'addiction' to life is more than just words. It is also a promise.

    (Hugs to you)

  6. Beautiful, thoughtful post, Grete. I hope you found peace. My father died when I was a small child and it changed my entire life in ways that are too horrible to mention.

    I adore Annie Dillard and own all of her books and have read them over and over. I love her book of poetry, "Tickets for a Prayer Wheel", but her "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" blew my mind and opened my eyes and changed me forever. Her book, "For the Time Being" is a celebration of life. I can't praise all of her writing enough. Reading her makes me happy to be alive. Blessings!

  7. Your imagery travels through me like a shiver.
    I am on alert, body and mind and soul in the tall wet grass. Grete, not metaphorically, does it travel. I feel it real. I prick my ears. I pound my fist to your vision.


  8. Jos -

    Imagination is a powerful tool. Be aware and handle with care, is my advise to self and others. It can spur you on to the highest mountaintops, it can attach to your ankles and push you down, down, down.

    I’m so very, very happy you are inspired.

    Amalia -

    Yes, all these tools of life! They can be used to build us solid, healthy lives. Or they can push us in the other direction. In my experience no one tool has just the one quality. As any tool so much depends on the craftsman.

    We need hours of practice and experience to hone the art and craft of living!

    I’m sorry of the tough times life has dealt you. Perhaps the tough times toughens us? Perhaps we are never served more than we can handle? Perhaps our experience of life deepens the more challenges we are channeled through?

    I am glad you have discovered beauty. I am glad of your addiction to life! So not all addictions are bad ones :-)

    Hugs to you as well, Amalia.

    Marion -

    I’m so sorry to hear about your tragic loss as a child. Some challenges seem almost unfair. Yet who knows the why and the what and the how. Life is a mystery.

    Annie Dillard. My heart does one extra little jump when I read her name. She is one of those writers who seems raw and honest, yet at the same time catches the magic and beauty.

    I have still not read the "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" (is that where she watches a moth being attracted to the candle and then gradually being burnt?) It is in my bookshelf though. You remind me the time has come.

    And blessings to you!

    Erin -

    Out in that your there.....remember the boots, the ground slippery after all the rain.....



  9. Again you have stunned me, dear Grete. It's the waving that did it.

    The first night after my husband passed away, I had such trouble falling asleep. When I finally did, I saw a young teenage boy just over the hill. He was waving his arm widely over his head. He was smiling. And then, when he was sure that I saw him, he walked farther down the path and disappeared. In my dream, I knew he was my husband, youthful once again.

    I knew it was just a dream, just my imagination. Yet the image was so strong, I wrote it down and drew the scene in a little book. Just my imagination, the young boy waving. There are times when you wish your imagination was more than just that.