I picked up Jami Attenberg’s memoir on the fly at the airport, looking for a small paperback that would fit in my handbag. It was a good choice: it fit, and then I couldn’t put it down.
I don’t think Jami and I would be fast friends. I sense a different – sensibility. But I’m also in awe of her journey, and in particular her perseverance as a writer. It made me ask: what do I want – what have I wanted – that much? And what have I been willing to do for it?
Also: I appreciate her sharp observations about the difference between loneliness and solitude. I appreciate what she has to say about self-acceptance. I like the way she writes about her friends.
Today I’d love to share a passage about her visit to “the bone chapel”, Capela dos Ossos, in Portugal, in which she thinks about life, death, and the point of it all…
“At the entrance of the chapel, on a pillar, there is a poem in greeting, attributed to father Antonio da Ascençao Teles, who was a parish priest in the village in the mid-nineteenth century. It translates to this:
Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Pause… do not advance your travel,
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.
Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to do so,
If only all did the same.
Ponder, you so influenced by fate,
Among the many concerns of the world,
So little do you reflect on death.
If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop… for the sake of your journey,
The longer you pause, the further on your journey you will be.
Capela dos Ossos was built in the sixteenth century by a Franciscan friar. It is a small chapel supported by pillars of skulls and bones piled together straight to the ceiling, and also surrounded by walls of bones porn bones. A few mostly intact skeletons hang from those walls, and on its vaulted ceilings there are graceful paintings of skulls. It is an extremely elaborate yet contained design. The whole of the chapel contains the remains of more than five thousand people, who were exhumed from the city’s graveyards at the time of construction, not just for monument purposes, but also to make way for new bodies to be buried.
The chapel was conceived not to scare its visitors, but instead to encourage them to contemplate their daily existence, to meditate on the transience of it, and to recognize the vanity of earthly life. It is a fully realized visualization of memento mori. To be asked to contemplate life and death and what I was living for, where I had been before I got there and where I would go to after I left, felt to me, amid the quiet of thousands of bones offered to me as art and ritual alike, like a gift.
An incredible stillness bloomed with me. It was the closest thing I had ever seen to a physical manifestation of the creative experience. Everything was dead – I knew it, I could see it with my eyes, bones dusted with hundreds of years of existence – and yet it felt so alive to me at the same time. it was designed for thought. Alive and dead, stories everywhere. Thousands of possibilities, thousands of stories. The bones had been brought together in this space, the bones would never be alone. They have each other, I thought. And all of us, visiting them, every day.
I had arrived at a different kind of interaction with the bones: I had a sense of being greeted. Death, the familiar. It wasn’t just the message about the entrance, although I appreciated the formality of it. I make no claim to have any sort of psychic sensibility or sensitivity. But we had clearly entered their home. They presented themselves for us, allowed our gaze to fall upon them. An invitation to examine and contemplate what remained of them, and to imagine their past as well, whatever space their past holds in the universe. In their death, in the presentation of it, in the remembrance of it, we were given a little more life, a little more to go on, something to take with us as we moved on in our future.
I was having whatever the opposite of an existential crisis was. It was a pure and deep moment of fulfillment, the same as when I finished writing the last sentence of a book, but also the same as writing just one good sentence, the moment just after that, that quickening of the heart, the peal of satisfaction that trembles through my body when realizing that I have taken the correct action. An ability we all share, to feel that way, once we find that one small thing that pleases us, that we can be good at. How lucky we all are if we can find that one thing we love. Even if the downside is that we miss it when it’s not around; or feel a sense of disappointment in ourselves if we can’t achieve it on any given day. But forgiveness is another thing to learn, forgiving ourselves for not always being our best, for not always accomplishing everything. Add forgiveness to the arsenal of skills we need to acquire in order to survive everyday life. Forgive ourselves for being human.
But what of my traveling companion? We were there together, but we experienced it separately. We were next to each other, but I was in a state of thrall to the bones… I was feeling something singular. When we left, though, I recall him asking me if I was happy, and I was, I was flushed and cheerful, and I think that pleased him. I told him: “This place is perfect to me.”
What I should have done right then is told him I loved him.”