Thursday, April 6, 2017

Semicolons and commas

I was so very sad to hear about the death of Amy Bleul, founder of Project Semicolon. Project Semicolon arose out of her own struggles and her desire to honor her father, who she lost to suicide. Amy popularized the symbol of the semicolon for survivors of self-harm and suicidal ideation. The semicolon, Amy explained, represents a sentence the author could have ended, but chose to continue. The message: life goes on. The story goes on.

Amy's social media post that inspired Project Semicolon
I did not know Amy personally. I know her presence will be missed by so many people. And I know, in the spirit of Project Semicolon, that her story, her care, her love, will go on, and continue to influence and help many people.

Strange as it sounds, I have been thinking about semicolons this past week. At Leigh's hospital chaplaincy, her cohort watched the film version of the play Wit by Margaret Edson. It just so happens I was involved in a staging of Wit while I was in college -- it's a beautiful and heart-wrenching piece of art.

The cast and crew of Wit at Washington College in 2004 --
that's baby-faced me on the bottom left
The play revolves around Vivian Bearing, a scholar and professor with a particular interest in the poetry of John Donne and little time for nonsense. Bearing is dying of cancer, and we see her final days in part through the lens of the Donne poem "Death Be Not Proud." In particular, Bearing remembers her own mentor, E.M., addressing the issue of how to punctuate the final lines of the poem:
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, 
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
Some editors place a semicolon, rather than a comma, between "be no more" and "Death," a decision which E.M. considers a grave offense:
Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause. This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.
So. A comma - a bare breath - between life and death. Or a semi-colon - a sentence that could have ended, but didn't, that hovers somewhere between an end and a continuation.

Some days, I want to write a semi-colon on my arm.

Some days, it feels like a comma would be more accurate.

But then, another punctuation association slips, unbidden, into my head. For awhile now, the United Church of Christ has used a comma as a symbol for their "God is Still Speaking" campaign. Granted, it's church PR, which always  has a bit of potential for cheesiness, but still. I like it. I like that comma:

I mean, it beats "ReThink Church"
God is still speaking, the comma says. Another version of the slogan is: "Never put a period where God put a comma." The story continues.

The story continues.

I didn't know Amy, personally. But her story continues. Our story continues.

Love without end; amen, amen.

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