To be, or not to be, that is the question,Hamlet Act III scene i
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And now we get to it. Arguably the most famous Shakespearean scene of all time. Arguably the most quoted Shakespearean line of all time. People who do not even know that Hamlet was a play set in Denmark, know to be or not to be. It has been used in high school commencement speeches. It has been used as a motivational mantra. However, there is very little motivational or celebratory about the to be or not to be speech. There is very little that most high school graduates, feeling larger than life and ready to take on the world, really want to hear. What I find the most poignant about this most famous of soliloquies, is that it is about suicide. It is about all of the things in the world that make living torturous, and it cuts straight to the quick of the reason that we put up with it –
Is it more noble to suffer through pain in silence or to take action? The body is born to suffer pain, most people would wish to skip it. Death could be as perfect as sleep, but in sleep we dream, and dreaming is the whole problem. Because we never know what dreams may come in the next world.
And because, dear Laertes, the last thing I want for you in your life is for longevity to be a calamity, I would council to bow with grace at the coming of age. Learn to see the marks of time as trophies instead of scars. Know that the pains of love will heal. The beautiful people will always look down their noses. Learn to not care. Yes, the legal system takes too long and allows injustice, perhaps it is worth fixing. Men in power will always oppress, that is why you must know that true power must be taken. Power will corrupt if it is not. And there will always be those who are rewarded and credited for things that they did not do. Nice guys will always finish last. Interesting how this would be used as motivational, right?
There is nothing of hope in To be or not to be. There is nothing but fear. Fear of the undiscovered country, that might be even worse than the stuff we have to deal with here, so we might as well put the knife away. We go to buildings that make us feel a sense of peace about that fear, by calling it faith, and then telling us to go teach it to other people. We give them another vision of what that final frontier might look like.
And we try to convince ourselves that we are not cowards of conscious. We are heroes and legends. Standing against this vast unknowable with the conviction of ……. what? Knowledge? No. They build a conviction of faith, which is all about pretending to have knowledge and using that knowledge to lead to a sense of control. Seriously, what part of the absolute grand scheme of Mormon Necromancy is not about controlling the undiscovered country?
In my life, self slaughter has abounded. I have seen more of it than most. In my time, the thought that has brought peace, in times that are the most chaotic and terrifying, is to embrace that the only pure form of hope comes with having no knowledge, not claiming all of it. That kind of knowledge would be quite a power, and power… corrupts. That kind of knowledge also claims a certainty about the future to justify itself. I loved teaching The Fellowship of the Ring, and the movies were admirable, but not perfect. These two scenes are melded from two scenes. One at the end, but the other is from the very beginning, while still in The Shire, and Gandalf says:
‘It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.
So, to complete the transformation, the one that led from Kansas City to the Classroom, I took you through my first meeting with Life. Knowing what birth was, gave me an understanding of love I had never known. But just days before we found out you would come into the world, I had my first meeting with Death.
The Death of Heroes
1999. Pinetop, Arizona. Spring Break. The Ides of March. I was sitting on my in-laws living room floor playing Ocarina of Time, the greatest Zelda game ever made, when the phone rang. My mother has always been reserved. I could tell she was fumbling with the real fear of the truth as she tried to control her emotions on the phone.
“He was different this morning when he left for work. Something was just off. He had this bag with him. He never takes a bag with him to work.” Her voice was far away. Like the mask she had so finely crafted to hide the pain of her life, the sorrows, the mistakes, the broken families, had slipped. And the voice was fragile. The voice was hollow. The voice was shaken. Real doses of reality can do that. Masquerades fall.
“Mom. Did he take the gun?”
And she cracked. She broke. A son should never hear his mother break like that.
It seemed everybody was at the Mormon church in San Manuel for my stepdad’s funeral. It was like some sort of twisted reunion, which I guess most funerals kind of become and that is sad, but this one was worse. It was everyone. Church people. Work people. Town people. Rick had been born in San Manuel. His dad, Hendrik Sr., had been the general mine manager. Now, his son had just been laid off from a similar position with the sale of Magma Copper to BHP Copper. Dad had put in something like 300 resumes that first few months. He heard back from one. In Argentina. Eventually, BHP hired Rick back, but his new job was out of Globe and involved firing many of his friends. Life long friends. By the hundreds.
Something broke in those years, but the masquerade had to be maintained. Jen and I were married, and living in Mesa, Arizona. I worked for Walgreen’s and was completing my degree in Education from ASU. My sister Robyn had gotten married, and was living in Tucson. My family had relocated to Globe. Erin was completing her junior year. Daniel was a sophomore. Thomas was in junior high. Caitlyn was eleven. Dad was buying boats and playing at Roosevelt Lake. They lived in a nice house at the top of Six Shooter Canyon.
But on Valentine’s Day he had given my mother a long stemmed rose dipped in 24 karat gold. A note was attached to it, “Because it will never die.” She thought it was romantic. Immortal. A month later the Ides of March offered a different interpretation.
We found my stepdad among the dust and boulders on the mine side of The Top of the World, a small place to stop for jerky and antiques in the high jagged cliffs that separate the town of Miami, Arizona from Superior further down the canyon. He had shot himself in the side of the head with a .45 revolver while looking down on the open pit mine.
My stepfather rode bulls. He danced in honky-tonks and had wild friends. My mother, sister and I civilized him I guess. From then on, he became the scout leader of every group I was part of . Church jobs or appointments are called Callings, and the faithful believe that God calls the members of the church to each position through personal revelation. When I turned twelve, he became the Deacon advisor. When I turned fourteen, he became the Teacher advisor. Sixteen, yup, now God wanted him to be the Priest advisor.
Twenty years. Now he had four kids of his own, two grandchildren on the way, he rode a desk instead of bulls, and was a leader at the local Mormon church. His geeky eldest step son was long gone, and he had tried to make amends. The story of that twenty years was supposed to be a story of Redemption. Family. Faith. That story should have been a success story. Instead I was watching my youngest sister walk up to her dad lying in a coffin to place her favorite bedtime story in his casket. It was a hard bound book, green and white.
My stepfather, Hendrik William Seaney, Jr. is buried in Tucson, Arizona in the Binghampton Cemetary. There is already a place for my mother next to him. Her name is already engraved. I imagine, in the end, she will be buried holding a golden rose. And my dad will read her If You Give A Mouse a Cookie.
2008. Phoenix, Arizona. Late shift at Bowne. The Ides of March. Leonard Holcombe had been the police sheriff in San Manuel when I was growing up. Yeah, when my step dad marched me to have the talk with the girl’s dad after playing doctor in the desert… that guy was the sheriff. He has also been like a father to me ever since.
Immediately following teaching, I tried to get a job using my credentials before my felonies hit my record. It worked and I got a job as an editor at Bowne Financial in downtown Phoenix. One night, just days after the ninth anniversary of Rick’s death, my supervisor came and told me I had an emergency phone call and I could take it outside.
“Hello, this is Ryan.”
“Ryan, this is Leonard Holcombe. Do you remember me, Rhonda’s dad?”
“Of course I remember you! How are you?”
And the retired sheriff’s voice broke in the most anguished lament I could imagine. It was not a wail, and it did not make me jerk the phone away from the pain of its volume. It was the sound of utter and complete heartbreak. “Rhonda is dead.”
Rhonda and I were born just over four months apart. We met just after the start of our sixth grade year at Avenue B Elementary School in San Manuel, Arizona. That would have been 1984; we were ten.We were acquaintances. We were innocent explorers. We thought we might be lovers. We were dreamers. We were enemies. We were rivals. But most importantly we were friends. The best of friends.
Through the years sometimes we talked daily, other times weekly, and sometimes maybe yearly – but we never lost each other. Rhonda used to say we left that crappy little town and did exactly what we said we would do. She was right. Up until the end.
My dear friend took her own life in March of 2008. She was almost thirty-four years old. Her father, Leonard, and her sister, Mindy, had the love and kindness to share with me some of the fragmented pieces my friend left behind. Rhonda and I had always planned on publishing a poetry book that showed how strangely parallel our lives had been. It was going to be an exploration of life’s twists and turns from two perspectives at the same time. My friend left this life before we ever got to realize that dream. In May of 2008, I went to Mindy’s home and she lovingly and with great trust, handed into my care an old red suitcase decorated with a cartoonish drawing of two children holding hands on an adventure. It was titled “Going Places”. I was unemployed at the time, and used entire days to sift through the pieces and fragments and tales of my friend’s life. The first poetry in that case was dated 1989. Rhonda would have been fifteen; we were looking at starting our sophomore year at San Manuel High School. The final poem was dated 2008. That case held a nineteen year history: written down, titled, chronicled and dated.
My poetry was cataloged very differently. Most of it was lost when certain websites that I had stupidly trusted went under and vanished from cyberspace. Luckily, through filing on my computers over the years, and keeping several books I was able to rival Rhonda’s collection. After the days that I spent spreading our verses across the floor of my Mesa, Arizona home – I felt that I was able to capture a piece of proof that shows Rhonda and me to be soul mates. Dark reflections in contrast of a similar soul.
Rhonda and I lived very distant lives, at least physically, but as I perused her words, bittersweet and tortured as most of them were, I saw how uncannily similar our lives had been. We were never, ever that far in spirit and we were always within the distance and connection of our own voices – written or spoken. This collection of verse is my attempt to make good on Rhonda and my dream. We were poets. Shakespeare wrote, “Poets, lovers and madmen have such seething brains.” Never has that been proven to be more true.
Rhonda’s final poem is called .45 Caliber Heart. She died from a self inflicted gunshot wound within hours of writing it.
How is it possible to measure the legacy of a life ended in tragedy? Much of Rhonda’s poetry resonates with the pain and anger of the human condition. That said, my hope is that our journeys resonate enough to make your own journey seem less alone, more understood, more cosmically connected, and ultimately – more full of hope.
My friend would appreciate that I think.
Laertes, as you can see, it is almost impossible for me to un-weave the music and films of my life from the literature I taught and the books that I write. They have completely unified to define my entire experience.
It is also the reason that learning what the pain of screaming out, “My sister will an angel be, while you lay howling” from me – felt damn different than learning it from anyone else.
The birth of a legend is the death of a hero.Tanya Thompson
Right now, this world is madness. Depression and anxiety are everywhere. People are feeling a sense of ennui and dread that we have not experienced – not anyone, not anywhere – in our lifetimes. And in the absence of being able to hug you, and tell you that everything will be alright, I would just remind you of the words of Gandalf and tell you with no guaranteed knowledge of tomorrow, despair is impossible. So don’t.
You are almost 21. Know the difference.
We knew the difference |In Scotch and a Handgun
Just hold on and don’t let go | Just hold on to my hand
I’ll show you that it all comes and goesStephen Ashbrook
‘It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.Gandalf
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline : 1-800-273-8255
Continue The Story
Next Week : Oh Captain, My Captain!