Two Letters to Nancy Mairs

A book report: A Troubled Guest - Life and Death Stories


Dear Nancy

I met you while fixing breakfast a couple of years ago. The radio was on, and you were speaking, or being interviewed, or being talked about by a reviewer of your new book - I was only half listening - and the Goethe poem was read and those last lines, “a troubled guest on the dark earth,” hit my ears like a small freight train. I stopped what I was doing, grabbed for a piece of paper, and wrote them down. I kept the note for several months, but not knowing your name or whereabouts or the source of the words, it became just an isolated, meaningful phrase in my brain, the echo of a familiar, probably common complaint, perfectly spoken.

This remained unconnected to the lady
in the wheelchair who spoke at our abolitionist banner news conference the other day, who was introduced as an author, and whose name I subsequently entered into the search utility at And bingo, there was my (our) (Goethe's) strange phrase, a troubled guest! I don't know about you, but little events like that make me sit up and pay attention. So of course I got the book, and saw for the first time the whole Goethe piece and understood why those lines were so arresting. They were about being on fire, or, I suppose, failing to be on fire.

Unlike you, I haven't had a lot of death in my life. My father died about the same time as your mother. It was my first and only deathbed vigil, about two weeks long, at a hospital in Montana where he had been a doctor all his life. In itself, his passing makes a long and darkly interesting story, which I'll spare you. More relevant is the Harper's magazine that the hospital had provided for visitors to read, which I carefully perused from cover to cover while dad slipped in and out of his morphine sleep. There was some really intelligent writing in there, active, angry, liberal stuff chafing against unconsciousness and entrenched nastiness in the world. Though it was a while before I had the retrospective distance to see this, something roused itself inside me that had been there most of my life I suppose, made torpid by late middle age. I returned to Arizona an orphan with a subscription to Harper's.

Becoming an orphan is, for everyone I'll bet, just as you describe in your book. It erases any dream of immortality we might have, or at least that endless longevity we pretend surrounds us. Parents gone, we're next up. Say it isn't so.

I can't tell if it is the vitamin pills, the resurgence of moral indignation, my own re-connection with the language of Catholicism, my friendship with the brilliant Father Joe (the Nigerian priest who spoke) or my encounter with Sister Prejean and the people at CAADP, but I have been experiencing a certain reshuffling of goals and fears and life priorities, along with an accelerating energy that is not my own. In the spate of reading that has kept me from getting any sleep for the past few years, was a book of selections from Annie Dillard, one in particular called Holy the Firm - with which you are no doubt familiar - about the problem of evil. In a spooky rephrasing of A Holy Longing, she opens the essay with a description of a moth burning up in a candle as she is reading one night up in the Northwest someplace. The tail of the moth gets stuck in the wax, and it flares up, prompting her to observe, as only Annie can do it, the whole gruesome immolation in every detail. Finally the moth becomes an upright hollow tube, a candle wick full of fire, with flame shooting out where its head had been.

So there you go. That's the fire that neither is nor is not yourself, that ignited when my crotchety old father removed himself from between me and Mr. Death. Orphan's fire. We aren't going to make it out of here alive, and yet life remains full of meaning. Whether we choose to deny it or not, each of us is presented, mind and body, into the physical world as nothing more than an apparatus, a container without content, a hollow tube filled, or not filled, with fire. We can go for immortality, polishing and maintaining ourselves like antique automobiles, battling entropy and all its hobgoblins, until we succeed, ultimately, only in giving victory to our ugliest suppositions. Or we can go for brightness, of which it can at least be said that something new is introduced, and possibly yet succeed in some completely unexpected way.

I guess life begins at sixty. Anyway, Nancy, thanks for contributing to this late, incendiary chapter in my life. I hope you are enjoying your own disappearance in whatever miraculous transience this might be.

Michael Moore



Dear Nancy:

It must be strange running into people who have read your autobiographical piece, and who now know more about various aspects of you than they know about their own sisters. At your general invitation, I have looked into your private hologram and have encountered many interesting things that seem now to be my business because you have made them so.


It has been a week of amazements, if the theme is overcoming hardship. Ray Krone emerged from ten years in a 7' x 10' box down the hall from the DOC's execution pod, remarkably intact, scrappy, pissed off, mentally nimble, eloquent even. How did he keep his brains together for all of that time? You have to marvel at the resilience of the human spirit, that it rises to meet the foe and makes of adversity a kind of motivating engine. You have got quite a lot of fire in you too, considering how hammered you must be by this time. You’ve written what? A dozen books? Your “personal God” might have authorized your MS as a handicap, just to keep the rest of us competitive.


When I was a kid I once hazarded to bring up the subject of death at a family dinner. In a rare moment of marital accord, I was told by both my parents that death was not a proper topic for the dinner table. It was not, as it happened, a proper topic for any other time either. For the most part, you just can't dig up a good chat about death in our culture, though I fail to see why not. With no memory of our origins, we have awakened (or dozed) into this most bizarre of circumstances, propelled into lives that have almost nothing to do with the surrounding atomic and astronomical structures, locked into an apparent sandwich of sturm und drang between our births and our deaths. And we don't want to talk about it! Some of my earliest memories involve the unsuccessful effort to enlist people in conversation about these all-important things. Far from understanding why such conversation is inappropriate, I have not yet discovered why alternative topics, the outcomes of sporting events and so forth, possess the substance to seize anybody's attention as they do. If our lives are, as Shakespeare suggested, analogous to theatrical productions, then clearly we can't have the actors gawking about at the stage rigging or questioning the script, rather than being dutifully absorbed by the proximal demands of courtship, revenge, greed and football. But must the play be entirely the thing? Isn't anybody curious about the more inclusive picture? With deference to the hopelessness of transcendental knowledge, why should the things we behold be more "knowable" than those in which we are contained?

You are, while pretending to be scornful of such speculative matters, somewhat interested in these things, as I think I will find if I look at more of your writing. At our age we are not part of the postmodernist world. We believe in the possibility of redeeming purpose, which must be found in the teeth of terrible and cold realities. The big riddle lies between the spiritual and the physical and we try, without reducing one to the other, to perceive the event of our eventfulness. Intemperate curiosity is what connects Catholics and chimps.

First of all I want to thank you for putting a name to radical ignorance. Just about everything we think we know is wrong, right down to and especially including our most basic assumptions. This is a good thing. since consensual reality doesn't hold out a very good prognosis for us. Where there is ignorance there is hope. As far as I'm concerned, the purpose of cognition is to take us away from knowledge and into vastation.

A great way to come down with radical ignorance, a smart woman once told me, is to start thinking excessively about time. It is a meditation available to anybody at all, open to all comers. Augustine in the 4th century, without the benefit of Minkowski's space-time vectors or knowledge of the Lorenz contraction, was nevertheless able to think himself to the point of mental exhaustion on the subject. He would say stuff like "But do I see it? Do I just seem to myself to see it?" "It is too far away from my mental gaze. It has become too great for me. I cannot reach it." and finally, having plowed his way deeper into God's secrets than anybody has any business to be, he would just give up, in an epiphany of radical nescience.

From your couple of references to it, you are probably about where I am with quantum physics, i.e you haven't got the slightest idea how you would go about firing a single photon through a slit if you had to do it in your garage, but you are able to appreciate that it is very strange indeed that the rules of Newtonian mechanics operate at all points in space and in all epochs of time, but not at all magnitudes or speeds. Our feeble understanding of space-time nevertheless provides the language with which most of us frame our thoughts about our mortality and our purpose.

Uninhabited time, the time in which I am supposed, someday, to be dead, is, for science, a function of velocity. Time and space are not necessarily a big container for our lives, a stage set that goes on and on after we drop out of the play, so that we have to imagine this endless future history containing our oblivion. Maybe it isn't like that at all. Certainly I don't think so, but neither am I smart enough to come up with an alternative picture. We find it wildly improbable that we should live twice, but fail to see how remarkable it is that we should live once. Would a second life add something to the miracle? Our limited minds can think of no locus for our eternality except in a compounding of years, whereas maybe a cessation of years would work as well. And what would that look like? It doesn't hurt to try to imagine it, but, as Father Joe, my post-Hegelian friend and philosophical antagonist says: all knowing is human knowing.

This material of which we and our world are supposed to be made tends to turn into pure arithmetic when placed under a microscope. I think we must not sell our ephemeral points of consciousness short. We may not be all that contingent to the furniture of the sensorium, a mere fizz that happens when neurons catenate themselves in a certain way. We may not, in fact, be guests in this place. We are, after all, the source of physics. Our behold of events is carried in the so-called present moment as though the center of time and our particular experience were one and the same thing. We may turn out to be bigshots in the creation after all.


Your essay on capital punishment should be required reading for anyone seeking access to a voting machine.

I do have to disagree with your suggestion that random citizens should be selected to witness the executions they mandate. A colleague at CACP expressed a similar idea - that if executions were public, people would be horrified and wish them to exist no more. This presupposes that beneath a veneer of outward vengefulness, most people harbor a core of gentleness and decency, capable of being jolted into rectitude. I am not, to reveal my own pessimism, convinced of this. My response to the shock tactic proposed by my friend was to remind him that executions have been public events in the past, as they remain today in many other parts of the world, and that such spectacles have tended to provide enormously popular entertainments for common citizens. I fear that the psychological morphology given us by Father Nature is more as described by Freud: a rather nasty core held in check by layers of civilizing restraints. One does not necessarily have to maintain that the deeper or more original levels of human bestiality constitute our essential selves, or that the pearly accretions contrived by evolution (hand-in-hand with the God of Teillard de Chardin) do not equally define us. But death so fascinates us that many of our most common social rituals are really contrivances to give ourselves the illusion that we can hold it in our hands. (Hunting, smoking, skydiving, war, roller coasters, motorcycle racing, karate classes, executions, etc.) I'm not sure it's wise to go scratching through the veneer of decency purely to drag a horrifying practice out of the darkness of collective repression and hold it before our faces. Quite a number of ugly beasties might be alive and well in there, just waiting for Caligula to return them to the sunlight of the coliseum.

We tend to argue abolition, as though it were a rational debate of some kind. We think if we simply "tick off" (as Sister Helen wearily describes it) our "reasons" for thinking as we do, (to wit: it doesn't bring back the dead or undo the crime - it doesn't bring closure - it sends a contradictory message - it is not a deterrent - it is non-redemptive - it is unnecessary - the Pope is against it - etc.), eliminating with facts and figures and compelling logic all the standard excuses for maintaining the dp, ultimately our opponents will run out of bogus excuses and have to admit that it is nothing but common revenge. But I don't think there is anything reasonable about the death penalty to begin with, any more than war or human sacrifice or the impulse to sadism are reasonable things. These are things we do, and have always done, and only afterward do we provide reasons to justify our secret, unreflected pleasure in the doing of them. This stuff is impervious to debate. It is in a category with dirty laundry and pedophilia. More demented than the first Gulf War itself, for Chris Hedges, was the brainless jubilation afterward, after 100,000 deaths. The funny books. The t-shirts. The complete, pathological refusal to come to terms with our own darkest nature. The reason abolition work interests me is that the thing that holds the death penalty in place is the absolute last thing any of us wants to look at directly. It is not poor social engineering, an error in judgement, a bit of human ignorance or misinformation. It is Thanatos itself, a major principle and fly-in-the-ointment of human affairs. In curing the death penalty we are very nearly attempting to oust Mr. Death from the human condition. (I'm not, of course, speaking of that natural change of state that terminates our bio-political lives.)

I've suggested to Kathy Norgard that we don't, as individuals or as a society, advocate capital punishment for any discernable reason. Its roots are deep in our psychic bowels, and very likely are none of our business. Rather than raising abolition as a judicial or academic issue, we might do well to follow the lead of the anti-smoking campaign and default to a Pavlovian approach. Realizing that smoking is also not a reasonable thing, and that no amount of unassailable argument is going to make people quit, they did an end run around rationality and simply cooked up some tv ads intended to accomplish nothing more than to associate cigarettes with things that stink. This campaign has in fact been relatively effective in reducing teen smoking.

There is only one fundamental reason to oppose the death penalty, and Nicey Nancy hit the nail on the head on page 165 (of the paperback). It is not about the criminals at all. It is about us. If we do not have the option of innocence, we do appear to possess the power to refuse space to what is worst in ourselves. Cognitive access to this mother-of-all-reasons not to kill people is permitted only to those of us who live in a moral universe, a world, that is, in which some kind of self-perfection or self degradation is taking place. The idea that we are self transforming creatures is common to many religions, whether the goal is to embody the immanence of God into an evolving world or to recapture a lost completeness, but for most practical-minded people such notions are only a kind of poetry. Non-Catholics, lacking a proper Augustinian vocabulary, would presumably draw a blank at the suggestion that we might live in a "culture of death." The fact that most of us spend every evening of our lives sitting on the couch watching 3-4 hours of simulated television murders does not, for want of any outside perspective, alarm us or prompt us to seek therapy.

Killing folks is bad for you. My extremism takes it a bit further: shooting animals for sport is bad for you. Inflicting pain and suffering is bad for you. Taking upon ourselves the role of tormentors puts us on very thin ice, morally speaking. The men and women of the corrections industry, to the extent that we have hired them to punish people, have been sent in harm's way no less than our children in any war zone. The danger is that they will come to enjoy their work.

To my thinking, the only functions we can demand of our prisons in a consistent and just society are rehabilitation and segregation. We should try to repair people who can be repaired. We should be protected from people who can not be repaired, but we are not thereby mandated to make their lives a slough of misery. The motive of revenge, that insideous, black urging that so easily wraps itself in robes of justice, while remaining the common link between murderers, torturers, executioners and nice people like us, must simply be removed from the penal system and from our own hearts, if we expect it to vanish from society. Victims whose sensibilities demand closure in the coin of reciprocal life-negating abuse to make up for their loss should be given counselling and perhaps medication. As tough as it must be to accept, the sun shines on the good and the wicked, and as you so eloquently say in your book, the operative principle must be grace. This is true of the entire daunting toxic cleanup required by our hateful, contentious planet. It's the only detergent. As galling, as embarrassing, as depressing as it is to admit it, John Lennon and the flower children were right. Love is the answer. I can't believe I believe this. Surely we're doomed.

Joe Arpaio, who runs that little hellhole prison up in Maricopa County, happily asserts that if the prison experience contains a sufficient level of indignity, discomfort and crushing physical abuse, nobody will ever wish to return, and will therefore refrain from crime. Like the deterrence myth, that story is easy to accept. But the recidivism figures started coming in a couple of years ago, and lo and behold, something about the pink underwear and 120 degree sleeping tents has got Joe's alumni coming back at a higher rate than to other, more humane facilities. Both Joe and ourselves need to take a look at Joe's job description. If we have hired him to make sure that evildoers are good and punished, he's doing a great job. If we have hired him to protect society, we need to get rid of him and find somebody else, because he is creating a species of dehumanized sociopath up there, and unleashing them back upon us.

If, in the interim between here and the Second Coming, the threat of punishment must be invoked to maintain social order, we should draw the line at death. Death is another of those gateways to radical ignorance. Just as we don't put on blindfolds and drive our cars, we should not go forward when we don't know what we are doing. We know what we are doing when we beat somebody up, or when we lock them in a cage. But we don't know what we are doing to somebody when we kill them.

I think your chapter on the death penalty is an elegant statement. It isn't often that something that so completely speaks for me makes it into print, so thank you.


Like most people, I have vastly fewer thoughts about disability than about death, so in this area I approach you with more questions than assertions. (I will read your book about it for the answers.)

Among a substantial menagerie of personal regrets is something I did not say to a (now deceased) friend about five years ago, on what was to be our last visit. This guy dates back to 1st grade, some staggering 57 years ago. He was a very special individual whose wonderful, intelligent, flippant personality I have admired to excess for all of that time. He married his dream girl, sired a daughter and two handsome, brilliant sons before keeping his date with a drunken lunatic headed West on the Eastbound side of the Connecticut Turnpike 30 years ago. His left leg was shattered from hip to toes. His bones, he told me, looked like the Aleutian Islands. After a year of surgeries, he could again use the leg, though 4" shorter than before, with the aid of a cane and a special shoe. Since high school he embraced an almost physical addiction to classical music (phonograph records, tapes and finally cds), making time each day to sit in a chair and do nothing else but listen. His marriage ended. He kept a diary of synchronicities. He did Shakespherian acting. He had a gracious and good heart. He believed in angels. He was in chronic pain for the last half of his life. Christmas before last he died of complications from gall bladder surgery, at the tender age of 62.

Although I had 30 years in which to do it, I never told him how sorry I was that he had suffered that accident, and that life was so difficult for him. Like everyone else, I went along with his public posture about it , which was open, joking (pretending to "blame" it on a mutual friend he had just driven to the airport in New York), signing his letters "Phip the Crip." Nobody was shy to refer to it. but we didn't let ourselves talk about it seriously. It would only have taken a couple of minutes, and would never again have needed saying. I'm so sorry that that happened to you. I so wish it hadn't. That it was left unsaid was surely more painful for me than for him.

We who are not disabled must learn from you who are, how to proceed with knowing you. It is not a part of our normal experience. It seems to me that disabled people are as varied as the rest of us, and that some might wish to take the reality and centrality of their affliction as an inevitable and proper starting point for the personae they present to others, that is, to make the disability integral to their own definition, whereas others might see the disability as a barrier to be circumvented, minimalized, ignored, in order to encounter people in as “normal” a way as possible (equalizing physical height, as you describe it), to make life more about the many things that have nothing to do with any of that. Both are good ways to proceed, but until we get to know you, we, the strangers among whom you move when you are not with intimates, need direction from you about how you wish us to relate to you. We are, you know, initially moved, even paralyzed by your "misfortune", yet we know that you could not possibly wish to be approached by everybody in a uniform state of shock or pity or whatever, whether that is overt or thinly disguised. You must encounter certain attitudes wherever you go. You must wish to hand people a written directive: How to Talk to Me.

I had a short conversation a few years ago, with a guy who had no nose. It was just gone, and you could look right into his sinuses while you were talking to him. His experience of it, it seemed to me, was that he was going to just go ahead as if everything was normal, and there was not a problem with this cutaway view he knew perfectly well other people were getting. I'm looking at the inside of this guy's head, this pleasant, intelligent guy, the inside of whose head I can't forget that I'm looking at, and I'm talking to him as if he had a nose, and as if there were no need to let my eyes flicker down to where I could SEE THE INSIDE OF HIS HEAD. He might have been the one with the infirmity, but that particular conversation was much more difficult for me than it was for him. Stephen Hawking would much rather, I'm sure, talk about black holes than wheelchair ramps and catheters, but it isn't easy to leave your "disability" out of the conversation when you look like a collapsed clothesline and sound like a kazoo. Imagine coming upon this guy, this treasure vault of information and humor. What do you say to him for openers? What does he say to you? All you both really want is access to each other. Surely the object is to get all the unspoken stuff spoken so that you can get into each others’ holograms.

I won’t further embarrass myself by by exposing more of my conventional ignorance in this area. I've ordered your “Waist High” book. My only thought right now is that everybody is challenged in some way, and it is generally worth the trouble to be patient with one another.

Please don't feel that you need to respond to this immoderate fan mail. You have plenty of writing on your plate as it is, whereas I have nothing better to do than cook up amateur essays in response to such rich stimuli as your book has provided.

Do you perhaps know my ex-wife Mary Lou Williams? She lives a block and a half down the street from you. I think you would find her interesting.


Michael Moore