19. Memento Mori

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Eugene, Oregon

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It was my freshman year at the University of Oregon. Ten thousand new students flooded the campus, living away from home for the first time in their lives. Serious-faced graduate students frowned under the weight of heavy books. Stoned boys played Frisbee on the grass in bare feet. Gorgeous girls laughed together and made eyes. The perfumed clouds of pheromones were practically visible. Professors nodded cordially, each to each. In the lecture halls, fresh notebooks were opened for the first time.

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Smith Family Bookstore

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Skull with Cigarette, Vincent van Gogh, 1885

Late at night, I sat in my squalid dorm room before my computer, drinking a can of coke or a beer if I could get one. Deep into the early hours I wrote very bad and very earnest poetry that I was certain would change the world. Out my window, I watched as the moon drew its slow arc of chalk across the curvature of the sky.

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I took three courses that first term. The first was “The Philosophy of Sex,” which I took for reasons that should be obvious to anyone.  I also took a physiology course as well as a senior level Shakespeare class.

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Shakespeare! The Bard! The most spectacular genius to ever grace the English language! And yet, somehow, Professor Rockett managed to make it excruciatingly boring. It was criminal. No joke, it felt as though I was having a bag of sand poured into my open eyes. The professor’s saw dust voice dragged along in a monotone so lethargic, so lifeless, that it made flowers outside the classroom window wither. The Master of the Revels would have locked Professor Rockett’s ass up in the Tower of London forever.

So I spent class reading through my Norton Anthology on my own. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, Twelfth Night… The professor’s voice was like a lawnmower in the distance as I sank spellbound into the lavish depths of those timeless lyrics. It was a Wednesday, around noon, that I discovered one of the most famous scenes in any play in history but, for the first time, felt the stab of its truth.

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Hamlet, being a brooding fellow, finds himself in a graveyard. He sees a gravedigger at work and asks him who he’s burying. It turns out to be the court jester, Yorick, who Hamlet had known and loved when he was a kid. The grave digger hands up Yorick’s skull and Hamlet holds it, amazed and stricken.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of

infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne

me on his back a thousand times; and now,

how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims

at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I

know not how oft. Where be your gibes now?

Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of

merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?

Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-

fallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell

her, let her paint an inch think, to this favour she

must come; make her laugh at that.

I cannot imagine holding the skull of someone I had known, a friend or a family member, to feel the weight of empty bone in my hand. It almost cripples me to try. When Hamlet says that his lady should “paint an inch thick,” he’s saying that she literally needs to “put on her face,” to paint an inch of skin over her skull. It’s such a thin veil, an inch or less thick, that separates the living from the dead.

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The owl was the symbol of death for Shakespeare.

So go, Yorick, and tell the lady a joke that will make her laugh at the fact that she is going to die.

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David Tennant (who plays Doctor Who), as Hamlet, used the skull of pianist André Tchaikowsky for Yorick’s skull in a 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production. This pianist donated his skull to the company in the hopes that it would be used as Yorick’s skull. The use of a real human skull caused a scandal.

I left class when our purgatory was done and went and got myself a Subway sandwich. I could not stop thinking about Yorick, who let the kid prince Hamlet ride on him like a hilarious horse and now, just a skull. Then I crossed the sunlit campus to go to my physiology lab.

The teaching assistant began by wheeling out a full human skeleton. There was every bone that had once been inside a living person. And there it was, naked and white as petrified wood. The TA explained that it was the skeleton of a rather small, Asian woman. He did not say what her favorite music or color or food was. He did not say how she died or if she had any children. She was just a skeleton.

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Real.

Then, the TA began to explain about different types of human bones and illustrated by passing around real human bones. I held a fibula. I held a humerus, an ulna. I held a tibia in my hand and felt its texture. It had once been in a person’s leg, had once taken first steps, had once walked in living gardens.

Then, we put on latex gloves. Not everyone had to, only the ones who felt up to it, but one by one, we were invited to hold a real human brain. I lifted it out of the bucket of chemicals. This was not a skull, it was what was inside a skull. It was heavier that I thought it would be. It was darker than I thought it would be, almost a grey purple. Here is where all of this person’s memories had been, every idea, every thought, every desire, every emotion, every sensation, every experience. The entirety of this person’s personality had once existed in what I held in my hands!

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After class, I went out onto the street and there was some sort of parade happening. A fellow walked by, dressed as a bear and holding a bunch of bright balloons. “What’s going on?” I asked him. “What is today?”

“Today is Wednesday!” he replied.

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…And Wednesday is Parade Day. Wait… maybe I don’t understand the question?

I was shocked by every person in the multitude that danced by. Look at all these people! Look at all of these weird, happy human beings! They’re all so alive! It was a balmy, late summer Wednesday evening and there was so much poetry to write, and the moon was out, and I was not dead yet. I was just as alive as I was on the day that I was born!

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About psychopompkaleidoscope

Is a mortal who will not live forever.
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