The Dash, A Comma And A Footnote

The beginning of the poem The Dash by Linda Ellis sets the stage: a man, speaking at the funeral of friend, referred to the dash between the woman's birth and death as the most important aspect of the person's life. Read the poem, if you can. And read/watch it here:

You can listen to the music and see the images in the Dash Poem Movie by playing the embedded YouTube clip below, but to read the lyrics that appear on-screen you will probably have to click here and play it full screen. Hat-tip to g'ma of Delphiforums for this topic.

Not too long ago, a comment about a comma elicited outrage in the United States. The comment:

"Admittedly, it seems like a decade ago," Bush went on. "I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma..."

Like it or not, references to periods of time as dashs, commas or even footnotes can have an amazing effect on perception, as well as both public and personal interpretation of the meanings imparted by such use...

The White House explanation at the time appeared reasonable --

"People have too much time on their hands," said Bush counselor Dan Bartlett. "I can assure you, you don't need a secret decoder ring to decipher what he's saying."

All Bush means, he said, is the struggle to build Iraqi democracy will take years. "He's making a historical analysis -- that these brief periods seem long and protracted now, but when you look back at them in history, they won't seem that way. He's definitely not discounting the loss of life or the sacrifice people are making."

The reference to the comma had other, deeper meaning for some, however:

...some speculating that Bush means it as a coded message to religious supporters, evoking the aphorism "Never put a period where God has put a comma."

The article points out, however, that the phrase was not one that originated from a neoconservative religious wingnut but from Gracie Allen, wife of the late George Burns, and the phrase was adopted by the UCC in January of 2002 with the interpretation of "God is still speaking, there's more for us to know." (attrib to Ron Buford, via the WaPo article)

The concept of a comma on the pages of history may also be an allusion to or a variant of the famous phrase "a footnote in pages of history."1 Whatever the context, however, it does serve to illustrate the simple concept of how all of history can sometimes be condensed and distilled over time, leaving the reader with but a few words, phrases and punctuation marks to cover sometimes intricate and tumultuous periods of time.

Our time, the time we are given in which to live our lives, is fleeting at best; we can slow the pace a bit in an attempt to enjoy and capture moments of joy or delay the onset of sorrow, or we can let life carry us away as though through a series of rapids in a wild white-water stretch. In the end, we are left -- if we are lucky -- with a stone marker denoting simply our name and the dates of our turn at life, while the whole of our lives are condensed to the dash between birth and death.

Some of us may generate longer-lasting, more detailed remembrance and more than simply a casual mention among the worn and yellowed pages in the archives of humanity, and through such remembrance gain a measure of immortality. For those people, still, there will be a set of dates set apart by a dash to denote their start and end; for those people, will the dash serve to call up recorded pages of history that cast their former lives in a kind light, or will the light be dimmed and darkened, destined to cast a pall over the events of the period?

Those who never achieve explicit mention outside of their individual "dash" will not have to worry what kind of light is cast by their remembrance; they may live on in family stories and history passed down among their ancestors, or live on within the community or culture they served without making a larger mark on human history, but the common folks -- of which we are many -- will often have just our contemporary loves to reflect upon our lives and the meaning which we left behind.

In any case, be the events of a life big or small, there's nothing worse than not giving oneself any meaning at all to the dash between their dates. A good mother, father, sibling or friend is, indeed, an admirable "dash" to bequeath those left living when one moves on.

So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent your dash?

Live your life as you are able, and spend your "dash" wisely.



Notes and Footnotes

  1. The meaning of "Footnote" per The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2000:
    Noun 1. A note placed at the bottom of a page of a book or manuscript that comments on or cites a reference for a designated part of the text. 2. Something related to but of lesser importance than a larger work or occurrence: a political scandal that was but a footnote to modern history.

    There's more, but the above is the portion that more directly applies here.

    It is possible that one of the first uses of such a reference comes to us through the 1893 publication of the Robert Louis Stevenson book A Footnote To History,

    A brilliant piece of work by Robert Louis Stevenson. This historic novel describes the battle fought among three powerful Western countries - United States of America, Britain and Germany - for the control of Samoa Islands. The book provides an in-depth analysis of the late nineteenth-century colonialism. Highly informative!

    About the book, via Wikipedia:

    he soon became involved in local politics. He was convinced the European officials appointed to rule the natives were incompetent, and after many futile attempts to resolve the matter, he published A Footnote to History. This was such a stinging protest against existing conditions that it resulted in the recall of two officials, and Stevenson feared for a time it would result in his own deportation. When things had finally blown over he wrote a friend, "I used to think meanly of the plumber; but now he shines beside the politician."

    The phrase receives further clarification here:

    The footnote would seem to be the smallest detail in a work of history. Yet it carries a large burden of responsibility, testifying to the validity of the work, the integrity (and the humility) of the historian, and to the dignity of the discipline.
    ATTRIBUTION: Gertrude Himmelfarb (b. 1922), U.S. historian. On Looking Into the Abyss, ch. 4 (1994).

    From “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?,” An essay first published in the New York Times Book Review in 1991.

    Perhaps the most famous reference, however, comes from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a campaign speech in Bolton:

    Unless we change our ways and our direction, our greatness as a nation will soon be a footnote in the history books, a distant memory of an offshore island, lost in the mists of time like Camelot, remembered kindly for its noble past.

    [Emphasis mine]

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Did a GREAT job on Dash!!!

enjoyed the writing 'bout it.

I've had an irritating habit of footnoting things lately in order to try and keep a piece on-topic; it's sometimes leading me to very very very long footnotes that could almost be "end notes" or even a whole flippin' appendix...but, at least I feel like I'm getting all the relevant data out.