Goodby, Norma Jean
The name Mary Oliver elicits something like rhapsody in me. On the morning of January 17, I noticed the lovely proper noun arrive on Twitter’s list of trending topics and my heart fluttered, if just for a moment.
Did the dear poet send new words into the world? Was she judged worthy of yet another honor? My mind danced between possibilities until one of Twitter’s crimson rules flooded back to me. Dreadful reasons to trend far outnumber pleasant ones, I recalled in the very act of clicking her name and learning she was dead at age 83.
I never broke bread with Mary Oliver, heard her read or so much as locked eyes with her across a grocery aisle. Yet her death left me undone for the better part of several days.
Like elements which affect the sea, celebrity deaths cause all size and shape of waves. Often, an overflow of grief touches the shore first. Invariably, backlash follows.
Someone too sensible for their own good reminds us how many people die every day minus the same fanfare. An unforgiving world delivers tragedy after tragedy and we show our cards, they argue, when we spend our grief on household names.
A cynical reading of the room around us says our world remains overexposed and under-connected. We identify with celebrities because of something lost or lacking within us. We experience their deaths more acutely because we feel we know them better than our own neighbors.
These judgments ring with truth. Making a healthy habit of introspection means eventually asking ourselves necessary questions after every great show of emotion. Knowing what makes us grin or grieve tells us something about what we treasure and where our hope lies. If we regularly break down at the loss of a celebrity yet shrug off the sorrow in our own neighborhood, something inside needs repair.
What the social-media scold or conversation killer misses, however, is the way real, robust life is lived. In the both/and. Mourning a celebrity does nothing to prevent soul-sickness over loss, tragedy or injustice anywhere else—whether intimate or immense in scale.
Once a disgrace, then wrecked by grace, the late author Brennan Manning reminds Christ-followers that true sanctification leads us to a place where no life seems strange. The decay of any flesh, innocent or pockmarked by sin, famous or unsung, touches us if we tune our hearts to Christ. Wherever death stakes its claim, we are bereft yet breathing, in knots yet not without hope. Within the confines of what Manning calls mature tenderness, grief poured over a celebrity conveys deep mercy, not shallow focus.
Condemning these mourners overlooks another fundamental reality. When Adam and Eve lie, eat and steal focus, we all lose big. What is possible with God—being fully known and somehow fully loved—slips through our fingers into the realm of the seemingly impossible.
In a world of frayed cords and fractured bonds, rock stars, actors and poets express what goes unsaid and remains misunderstood. Our grief, at least in part, ties back to the innate desire to be known. A song, a scene, a stanza often sees and hears us better than the flesh and blood around us. This is, in one sense, tragedy. And yet, in these moments we hold in our hands a few seeds of what once grew tall in the Garden of Eden.
Elton John knew the truth when he delivered a love letter to the memory of Marilyn Monroe: Goodbye, Norma Jeane, though I never knew you at all ... from the young man in the 22nd row, who sees you as something more than sexual, more than just our Marilyn Monroe.
I ran a few miles around the upstairs track of my neighborhood recreation center the day one of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s friends discovered him dead. With each lap, I passed television screens bearing a picture of Hoffman in full and former health.
I choked back tears every time I rounded that corner. My mind flashed back to Hoffman as Phil Parma in “Magnolia,” leaning into a moment of self-aware drama, calling for an eleventh-hour miracle, sure “this is that scene” in the movie where something crucial happens. I thought of scruffy, soulful characters, a familiar trace of sadness around the eyes, their deep calling to the deep in me.
I never knew Philip Seymour Hoffman or Mary Oliver. But I felt they knew me. And that sort of knowing, when it comes and then goes, reopens an ancient wound.
I shiver slightly anticipating the next celebrity death to fell me. I fear the eventual loss of Bruce Springsteen will break the dam in me. A light will go out when Bono breathes his last. Looking foolish in torn clothes and ashes doesn’t bother me. Spending emotion gives me little pause—there’s more where that came from. More than anything, I dread the absence of someone who knows.
If we exert any righteous energy in the days after a celebrity dies, let it be spent in the service of glimpsing and giving credence to another soul. Slapping someone on the hand, admonishing each other to adopt stiff upper lips, wastes precious time. Until we all are known in full, we only have so long to imitate celebrities, and our God, making much of what’s lovely in the people around us.