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Tom Chaney: Clear Shadows of Hope's Persistence

Of Writers And Their Books: "Clear Shadows of Hope's Persistence." Tom reviews Possessed by Shadows by his friend Donigan Merritt who was asking him to read some things Donigan was writing in the late 1960s. This column first appeared 22 June 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: "A Merrier Companion There Never Was"

By Tom Chaney

"Clear Shadows of Hope's Persistence"

This week's column is about friendship and love. Love between two climbers Tom and his wife Molly and them knowing Molly must die and Tom and Molly choosing how they must live in the shadow of her impending death.

The book is by Donigan Merritt, Possessed by Shadows [Other Press, 2005].

Tom Valen and Molly Cook meet as climbers at Joshua Tree in California. Molly is one of the best female rock climbers and the daughter of a renowned climber. "My father's most important gift to me is the self-confidence bred in mountains, the pastime that has dominated my life. He made me a climber.

"From my mother I received imagination, the gift of words and dreams.... She read to me.... I grew up craving the telling of stories, fascinated by storytellers. I wanted to be one, but instead I married one."

And she and Tom are married -- a marriage made holy by high mountains and difficult peaks.

Climbing in California Molly is struck unconscious by a rock kicked off a trail by a careless hiker leaning over to watch the climbers. Tom and friends rescue her, but in reading the x-ray, Molly's doctor discovers an inoperable brain tumor marching its relentless path to the destruction of Molly.

Possessed by Shadows then proceeds first in the voice of Tom and then of Molly as they decide how to live. Tom leaves his university teaching post to devote himself to Molly's dwindling life.

The title of the book comes from "The Sonnets to Orpheus" by Rainer Maria Rilke:
Already possessed by shadows, with illness near,
Your blood flowed darkly; yet, though for a moment suspicious,
It burst out into the natural pulses of spring.

Again and again interrupted by downfall and darkness,
Earthly, it gleamed. Till, after a terrible pounding,
It entered the inconsolably open door.
Molly describes meeting Tom, "I am amazed at how things work. The utter randomness of it all. The blindness. I had just met and spoken to the man I would love and live with for the rest of my life, and except for this sudden and vague feeling of hunger, the moment passed with no more weight or importance than saying hello to a friendly passerby. Every moment of our lives is pure potentiality, Tom has said."

They spend their honeymoon amongst the peaks of Switzerland and they climb in the mountains of Czechoslovakia with Tom's friend Stefan. And it is to Stefan in Czechoslovakia that they return when Molly's end is near.

From the hospital bed Molly whispers to Tom that "it is time."

Accompanied by Stefan, Tom carries her to a wide ledge high on the Gerlach Ridge in the mountains -- a place she has told Tom she wishes to be at the end.

And in her last coherent journal entry she wrote, "I came into being. I was named. I inhabited spaces. I did things. Things were done in spite of me, to me. I will cease being. It is the most common of human stories. I don't know another way to tell it.

"I only sought a way to say, I am . . .
And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I'm flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am. [Rilke]
At the beginning I said this was a column about love and friendship. Tom and Molly tell of love in a way that soars above the maudlin, punctuated by the clank of pitons being driven into rock, the crunch of a pick in ice, and the whisper of an empty rope losing its climber.

The friendship has less to do with the novel than with my pride in the ideas and craftsmanship of a dear friend.

When I arrived to teach at Southern State College in Magnolia, Arkansas, in the fall of 1965, Henry Donigan Merritt was one of the first people I met. He was never a student of mine -- good judgment on his part, I suppose, but he quickly became a friend showing up at my house at all hours for talk or for me to read something he wrote.

I left after a couple of years and he did too -- leaving for Michigan and for a stint on a fishing boat out of Hawaii. We stayed in touch.

In 1970 I moved to Iowa to teach theatre at Simpson College. Donigan, by then, was bored with the islands -- too pleasant too much of the time he said.

He enrolled as a philosophy major at Simpson taking high honors at graduation. I returned to Kentucky, Donigan to the Iowa Writers' Workshop; marriage; Coronado, California; six novels; and some years in Europe with his diplomat wife.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

The Sonnets to Orpheus -- Sonnet 25
by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

But you now, dear girl, whom I loved like a flower whose name
I didn't know, you who so early were taken away:
I will once more call up your image and show it to them,
beautiful companion of the unsubduable cry.

Dancer whose body filled with your hesitant fate,
pausing, as though your young flesh had been cast in bronze;
grieving and listening--. Then, from the high dominions,
unearthly music fell into your altered heart.

Already possessed by shadows, with illness near,
your blood flowed darkly; yet, though for a moment suspicious,
it burst out into the natural pulses of spring.

Again and again interrupted by downfall and darkness,
earthly, it gleamed. Till, after a terrible pounding,
it entered the inconsolably open door.

Silent friend of many distances
by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face

grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.

In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.

And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I'm flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.

This story was posted on 2013-06-23 04:58:09
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