Life, dreams, and “the smiling mortician”

Why Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s words speak to me

Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned 100 today. As a teenager, I was drawn to Ferlinghetti’s poems because they were written in a language that I could understand. The first time I read “The World is a Beautiful Place,” it stirred something deep inside me. Its warning about life’s sudden end (“then right in the middle of it/comes the smiling/mortician”) still makes me shiver. Ferlinghetti’s poem taught me that simple words could carry great power when used to glue together the contradictions of life, like ugliness, beauty, joy, and fear.

Now that I’m at the center of this ugly, beautiful, joyful, and fearsome life, the smiling mortician is more than a symbol to me. My parents are aging. My hair is graying. I have to sleep more than I used to. I worry about mammograms and colonoscopies. I am healthy, but if I push myself too hard, I get sick. The smiling mortician has a face now. I am busier than ever with my goals, trying to realize them all before the end comes.


One of those goals is becoming a librarian. When I started my library degree in 2016, I was scared. I had been out of school for 15 years and had never been an online student. I had a “good” job. I did not need another master’s degree. Was I doing the right thing?

Three years later, I know I did the right thing. The hours I have spent studying and writing about librarianship have been some of the most fulfilling of my life. Things that I thought I would never do – building websites, editing videos, blogging – I have done as a library studies student and have enjoyed doing them. I have cultivated a side of myself that I may never have known about had I not pursued a library degree.

I used to think that The Professions were for other people. I am a writer. I thought that pursuing a professional degree would compromise that identity. It has not. I still write all the time. I still love creating poems and songs. I have had to put some of my creative ambitions on the back burner to focus on my degree, but the ambitions are still there. In fact, library studies has exposed me to new avenues for creativity. With the skills and knowledge I have now, I can write about a broader range of subjects and share my work more widely.

I cannot avoid the smiling mortician, but as a librarian and a writer, I can try to make the world a more beautiful place. I can keep on doing the things that Ferlinghetti wrote about in his poem — “kissing people”, “wearing pants,” and “looking at everything.” I can keep learning and taking chances. Like Ferlinghetti, I can keep on living.


Stock photos: Royalty-free images from Pixabay

Book reference: Ferlinghetti, L. (1959). A Coney Island of the mind. London: Hutchinson & Co.

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Copyright © 2019 by Stacy Torian. All rights reserved.

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