Intimations of Mortality

A strange series of thoughts ran through my mind this afternoon at South Beach on Martha’s Vineyard. My wife and I had come for more than the usual pleasures of sun and surf. The day before, on July 4th, a large whale, deceased, had washed ashore, and we were curious to see the remains. The carcass first touched shore by the Katama Road entrance. Overnight, it had drifted almost three hundred yards east towards Norton Point.

We stared at the decaying flesh, aware that the whale must have died well before it arrived. I couldn’t tell its head from its tail. A large whale bone, picked clean, was lying nearby. Thirty yards away, four young surfers were testing the waves, indifferent to the whale’s sad fate. After a few minutes we marched back towards the lifeguard tower and prepared for a swim.

First, though, we sat on the sand and studied the ocean as it caressed the shore. My mind drifted back to the whale; I tried to imagine it in life, more than sixty feet long, coursing through the deep in full vigor. Why had it died? Had nature taken its inevitable toll, or had the whale collided with a ship and been injured by the propellers? The newspapers had presented no theories. According to a lifeguard, the town and the coast guard had yet to decide who was to drag the carcass out to sea before it became a health hazard on the beach. My shoulders drooped as I clasped my knees. It seemed to me that the whale had met its end prematurely, for reasons beyond understanding.

To break the spell, I jumped up and cried, “Let’s swim!” Soon we were wading into the crisp, 68-degree Atlantic Ocean. We doggie-paddled just beyond the breakers before turning westward to swim parallel to the coast. The clear salt water lifted both body and soul, for the moment purging me of morbid thoughts.

After fifteen minutes of swim we toweled ourselves dry and stared again at the sea. Almost immediately, I noticed something in the water that, in its own way, seemed as odd as a whale carcass. A teenage boy walked into the waves holding his cell phone in his left hand. For the next ten minutes he recorded himself trying to ride the waves. A selfie in the sea! I stared incredulously at first. Why bother? Why not ride the waves and talk about it later? The phone, it appeared to me, was preventing the body surfer from even catching a wave. But this young man was persistent, attempting the feat again and again.

The scene reminded me of tourists I had observed last fall at the Louvre lining up to take selfies in front of the Mona Lisa. For those tourists, the selfies seemed to be the main reason to be there.

I had come to see the Mona Lisa, like millions of visitors before me, to parse her enigmatic smile and imagine the soul behind the pose. The painting itself was subtly wrought and pleasing to the eye. I saw no need to publicize my time with the masterpiece any more than I needed to publicize my swim in the ocean. Each experience was an end in itself, something to be enjoyed primarily in the moment.

Then I considered the whale’s lonely destiny. No one had recorded its glory days, the winter months spent lolling in the tropics before migrating north in summer to feed and to breed. No one could turn to You Tube or social media to watch its adventures on video. It occurred to me that like the whale, we come into this world alone and pass out of it alone- the singular doom of all living things. Perhaps, I thought, the selfie fad is nothing more than an awkward attempt to defy our mortality by preserving discrete experiences digitally.

I then recalled my delight at recently discovering by chance a video posted a few years ago by Denebola, Newton South High School’s online newspaper. It was a performance of mine in the annual Tertulia, an all-day talent show at South held each April. On this occasion I was playing guitar and singing accompaniment to Celina Bliss Siegel, a talented student of mine. We performed the classic bolero “Besame Mucho” to the delight of a packed auditorium. After watching and listening, I smiled, pleased that the performance was somewhere out there in cyberspace.

Perhaps, I supposed, this video served the same function as those selfies taken in the Louvre and at the beach. True, I had no idea that the performance had been posted online, nor any sense of how long it would remain in circulation. For me, performing in the Tertulia every spring with an ever-changing group of students was its own reward, each performance as precious and perishable as life itself.

Like the whale, every life, no matter how fair, “sometime declines/ By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.” For Shakespeare, the only hope of saving his love’s “eternal summer” was to preserve it in “eternal lines to time,” i.e. poetry. Poetry, in this sense, respresents all art, and “Ars longa, vita breve.” Though we will all die, works of art and literature will survive “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see.”

Though selfies are rarely works of art, they may well be a contemporary stab at immortality… or merely an exercise in self-obsession, a belief that personal experience matters only when others witness it. As for me, I will keep both hands free when enjoying works of art or swimming in the sea.

In January 1015, I retired after teaching English for 34 years at Newton South High School. I continue as girls' tennis coach there, this being my 26th year in that role. My wife, Dahlia Rudavsky, to whom I have been married for forty-four years, is an employment lawyer on the side of the oppressed. My wife graduated from Newton South, and we have lived in Waban since 1980. My favorite pastimes are writing (see my periodic column in the Newton Tab) and playing tennis. I also help raise funds for Yad Chessed, a wonderful local charity. You might also find me supporting various causes around Newton.

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