The Circle Game.

20 Jan

Another one of my friends has very sadly died. Brian was 67 and I sang with him in Whitby Community Choir. He was a fellow bass and a lovely person to know.

 As they carried his flower-decked coffin into the packed chapel, they played Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” It’s a song that I know and love, but up to that moment I never fully appreciated what the lyrics meant. I had vaguely thought of it as being about the passage of time, with the seasons constantly turning round. However, I didn’t quite grasp, or didn’t wish to grasp, that it’s also about the inexorable process of ageing with its inevitable conclusion in death. The most chilling lines, I think, are:

       ” We’re captive on the carousel of time,

          We can’t return, we can only look behind

          from where we came….. ”

 It is the fatalism expressed here that is so dispiriting, I feel. It’s depressing to realize that we are trapped in an unalterable process. When I first heard these words, in my early twenties, I didn’t think about them too deeply, as I was armed with the arrogance of youth. I had my whole adult life still before me and didn’t want to get depressed by thinking of the inevitability of my demise. Death is something we largely avoid thinking about in our Western culture, unless we are suddenly confronted by the passing away of someone close to us or we fall victim of a life-threatening illness. Then we shed tears, and get sad, upset and depressed, even though we have known all along that death is one of the few certain aspects of life. What disturbs me is the fact that we have no control over this process. It’s just nature taking its course. As Joni says: we are “captives” of time. Our personal clocks are constantly ticking.

  At Brian’s funeral there were rousing hymns, prayers and eulogies. Even though people were crying and had sad, sombre faces, the service was billed as a “celebration” of his eventful life. Anecdotes, quotes, stories and songs, all brought Brian back to life again as we remembvered our times with him, and appreciated all the lives he had touched. Even though he wasn’t physically amongst us, he was still a powerful emotional presence. We were connecting to him once again through our warm memories. This served to lift the mood of sadness and fatalism that had accompanied me at the start of the service.

 The concept of a circle is very appropriate in thinking of our lives and deaths. First of all, there is the natural cycle of us returning to the earth from which we came via the burying of our bodies or scattering of our ashes. In this way, by enriching the soil, a death can lead to new life.

  Another circle, believed by Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, is the cycle of the soul — in other words the process of reincarnation. Here death is not the end, but merely a prelude to a new beginning. The circle turns again as the soul leaves one spent body and enters another one in order to live a new life. This constant rotation will only end, it is believed, when a person can finally shed his/her ego and unite once again with “God.” Believers in past-lives also subscribe to this notion of birth-death- and rebirth. This idea sees life as cyclical rather than linear.

  Yet another idea is that of the ” social circle.” Most of us reside in the centre of a constant, swirling circle of social interactions. These encounters can be both direct and indirect. They can take the form of : one to one meetings, telephone conversations, letters, texts and emails. On a wider, less personal scale, we also interact with people who we have never met. Thus we may read a book that someone else has written, listen to a recording of someone else’s song or even cook a meal devised by a chef we have necer met. TV programmes, films and plays also contribute to our wider circle of interactions with others. Our lives consist of constant encounters with others that spread from the centre. It is only when this whirl of interactions stops that we can say that life has finally ceased. However, as we experienced at Brian’s funeral/ celebration, not even the apparant finality of death can prevent this circle of connections from rotating, because it continues to turn in the memories of those left behind. Whenever I listen to a String Quartet by Beethovan or read a novel by Jane Austin they live again even though technically they passed away a long time ago. Similarly when I look at a photo of my Grandma Alice or recall visits to her house when I was a child, she returns to life in my mind.

  So, although in a purely physical sense we are all “captives on a carousel of time”, in another sense, through the recollections of all those we interact with, directly or indirectly, we can defy the clock and live on indefinitely. This is especially true if one is a particularly social animal. Brian met many people through his teaching, singing, choir leading, play writing, acting, cycling and charity working. So he lives on in the minds of all those he taught, entertained and helped as well as in the hearts and minds of his family. Brian’s personal participation in the circle game has now sadly ended, but the circles still surround him like  ripples in a pool — circulating memories activated by the many memory-joggers that he left behind. I made the same point about the importance of memory when I wrote about the death of another friend, Clive, a couple of years ago. That made me realize why ancestor-worship, was/is so prevalent in Ancient China and South-East Asia. By keeping pictures and mementoes in family shrines, a family can keep the memory of their departed relative alive.

  This is perhaps why a funeral is traditionally followed by a “wake” in our culture. I’ve never thought about that word before — “wake.” Now it seems obvious. The friends and family of the recently departed, resurrect or wake-up him/her through their shared stories and memories. Perhaps death is not just one big full- stop afterall. The circle game swirls on and on and on. From being depressed about the inevitability and finality of it all, I now find it all quite comforting and reassuring.


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