One of Us

Oh, one of these nights at about twelve o’clock
This whole earth is gonna reel and rock
Saints will tremble and cry for pain
For the Lord’s gonna come in his heaven airplane.

“One of Us” by Eric Bazilian, recorded by Joan Osborne

Flying always puts me in a philosophical frame of mind, and the first day of spring found me pondering life’s big questions as I flew home from Rome.

On the way to the airport the taxi’s radio played “One of Us,” and after several days of Rome’s in-your-face Catholicism I smiled at the song’s irreverence:

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
Nobody calling on the phone
Except for the Pope maybe in Rome.

The flight route via Amsterdam took us across Europe’s highest and lowest points, and the clear skies afforded spectacular views all the way from the snow-capped Alps to the watery Dutch countryside. Flying this downhill route from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, it seemed as if someone had put a pin in the Earth’s balloon, deflating the mountains, their vertical sluices of snow melting from the peaks flattened into the network of canals that carve the lowlands into islands.

On the plane I was seated next to two graying Japanese nuns in gray flannel habits; one snapped photos out the window while the other studied what I presumed to be an instruction manual on disaster relief. They were continuing on to Tokyo, and I wondered if the earthquake and tsunami that had struck their country the week before had shaken their faith. How could it not have? When the forces of nature show no mercy, how can we believe in a creator who would drown thousands of people and wash away whole towns in an instant, and then leave the survivors to cope with a nuclear disaster? The scale of the tragedy is simply inconceivable—like the creator who set this world in motion and walked away.

I was reading, and finished en route, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Gail Caldwell’s heartbreaking memoir of friendship, dogs, love and death. Reading memoir always feels a bit voyeuristic, but this one hit especially close to home; the author lives just a few blocks away in Cambridge, and the story centers on a friendship forged through daily dog walks at Fresh Pond. I must have passed their “pack of four” on my own walks there, perhaps even nodding hello as they passed, without any of us foreseeing the finite significance of their walks and friendship. The book’s sense of place and character were so vivid and eerily familiar that I felt the author’s intense grief at loss of her best friend to cancer as if it were my own.

I thought, too, of the abiding friendship of the poet John Keats and the painter Joseph Severn, buried side-by-side in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, which I visited with my daughter. In 1820 Severn accompanied a gravely ill Keats to Rome and nursed him in their shared house overlooking the Spanish Steps until Keats’ tragic death a few months later, at age 26. Keats’ headstone identifies him only as a “Young English Poet” and bears the inscription “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Fifty-eight years later Severn was laid to rest beside Keats, beneath a matching headstone that reads: “To the memory of Joseph Severn, devoted friend and death-bed companion of John Keats, whom he lived to see numbered among the immortal poets of England.”

Thinking of the events in Japan, I ached to imagine Caldwell’s and Severn’s grief multiplied by the tens of thousands friends and family members who perished in the tsunami. When ten percent of a town’s population and all its familiar landmarks vanish, where can the survivors turn for solace? We have each other, until we don’t. There I was, just a stranger on an airbus, trying to make my way home, and hoping the other passengers didn’t notice the tears welling in my eyes.

The graves of Keats and Severen in Rome

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