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Posts Tagged ‘death’

I set out to comment on this post by Thom Ingram, and realized instead that his writing had inspired more than just a comment. I’m not going to rehash his post; just read it for yourself because it’s a beautiful mindful struggle with the meaning of life.

I haven’t studied – or even read – multiple spiritual texts as Thom has – but I have this sense that in addition to the commonalities across texts that he mentions, there is also a shared thread of being fully present in the here and now; of living compassionately and empathetically towards myself and all others. And I think that is actually based on – and counterweight to – the commonalites he does bring up – that there is more than we know or sense, that we are more than we know or sense, that so much of what we think we are apprehending is not by a long shot the last word or the ultimate reality.

For me the idea of presence and humble empathy is often embodied in the squirrels I see out my window, just a representative for me of all the small and mindless little creatures living out their seemingly ultimately pointless little animal lives. I imagine what life is like in a squirrel’s mind. I empathize with this tiny furry rodent feeling warm sunlight and wintry winds on its body, its heart racing as it scurries illogically across the street in the paths of roaring automobiles, its simpleminded squirrelly chuckling laughter from a branch high in my backyard tree directed at my outraged terrier below. I think of it feeling hunger, cold, pain, and also delight, contentment, even rodent-level joy.

In the cosmic scheme of things, I am that squirrel. Except that my kind have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and there can be no unknowing, no returning to the simple thoughtless life of the squirrel. I – and you – live in a cosmos that is beyond even our most-exalted-of-all-species intellectual capacities, but we have this extra level of knowledge that as far as we know, no other animal possesses: we know we’re going to die, that no matter what, every one of us is housed in a body that is falling apart, destined for the dirt. And beyond that, our knowledge fails us**. It appears to be the last word on the reality of the human body, as far as we’ve been able to ascertain through the senses and mental capacities of these bodies.

So we turn to imagination, art, faith, drugs, anything mind-altering, to see if somehow we can transcend the painful reality of the knowledge we can’t unknow, this knowledge of the ultimate decay of all things. And sometimes we can, and do. But that transcendence never gives our intellect the words and ideas it needs to feel satiated.

Thom says in his post, “I want to be in this world. In the here and now. I want to be centered on this place. But it’s all an illusion.”

And that’s where I turn to my powers of squirrel empathy for a little help. Whether it is all an illusion or not, this is the world where I have found myself. It is the reality I know, and you are here too. You are, right? Because maybe if everything is an illusion, then all the people around me are an illusion too, and it doesn’t matter how I treat them or what becomes of them.

I wonder, is this why the Genesis account of the tree of knowledge treats the tree and its fruit as so dangerous? If I understand that the world I think I know to be real is merely a virtual reality created by my senses and fed into my mind, why not seek to rise above it all? Why not make myself a god, the god of my own life, the god of this reality? Why shouldn’t I pilfer the planet and its people for the things I want, since it’s all a sham and even that is ultimately all falling apart anyway?

But back to the squirrel. The humble life of the squirrel. Breathe in, breathe out. Sunshine. Wind. Fear, laughter, hunger, and joy. And then, the human, who asks why? Always why, always, but why, what for, where is all this going, what’s it all about?

I don’t think asking why is ever a problem on its own. Instead, I find it concerning when we stop asking why because we think we know it all and we’ve come up short, disappointed and disillusioned with all we know, and throw up our hands and sigh, who cares, it doesn’t matter anyway.

It’s a hard fight some days, and others it feels small, pointless and never-ending – but I keep trying to faithfully live like a humble squirrel and an inquisitive human. I don’t think the fruit of the tree of knowledge is only bitter poison. Maybe if you squeeze out the sweetest part of it, let it ferment and share it with your friends, it can bring you some joy too.

 

**Of course humans are intellectually much smarter than squirrels, making discovery upon discovery, building wizard-level technological masterpieces – but that to me is just a way more powerful version of the squirrel brain. I’m referring here to consciousness, a sense of me and my place in the world, and its most painful realization of death and decay, that we haven’t knowingly encountered in any other species.

 

Bonus material – here’s a song I wrote last year and the origin of this post’s title:

 

 

 

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Day six in my “Leaving Loveland” challenge.

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I took this photo from my front porch just now. In this house across the street there are some office suites, ClothRoads Studio, and a residential apartment, where our neighbor Jeanne lived until her recent death.

Although she was on oxygen, Jeanne could often be seen cycling around the neighborhood on her recumbent bike, her saddlebags loaded for the day’s errands (oxygen tank included). She told me that she really couldn’t walk around the block anymore, but bicycling was easier, so she loved to get around that way.

She gave us her kitchen scraps to feed our chickens, and loved to see what we were doing with our garden. When both our kids were in a community play last summer, Jeanne came along with Nathan and me to watch the performance. That same summer the kids went over each day to walk a dog she was sitting for a couple weeks, and she always had lemonade and cookies for them after the walk, as well as good conversation. My daughter Luthien especially was so interested to talk with her and learn about her life.

The last time I talked to Jeanne, only a few days before she died, she eagerly told me about her plans to get some chickens. She had a pre-fabricated coop all ready to assemble, and I remarked to myself how vibrant she was. I had seen an ambulance in front of her house in the early hours of the morning only a week before and wondered if it was for her, but after seeing and speaking with her that day, I assumed it hadn’t been.

The next Saturday there was a garage sale at Jeanne’s house, and Luthien came back from it and told me that Jeanne’s family was selling some of her things, because she had died. It was hard to believe, and she cried.

The crabapple tree in the photo bloomed after Jeanne was gone, and Luthien said it was celebrating Jeanne’s life – and a beautiful, generous, well-lived life it was. I’m grateful we got to know Jeanne for the short time that we were neighbors.

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For most of my life I’ve lived hundreds of miles and multiple states away from my grandparents, and for most of my life I’ve gotten back to see them about once a year. A relationship kept like that, in one-year snapshots, has a different sense of time and life passing. One year I’m a mousy elementary-school kid watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons and eating Honey Nut Cheerios with my cousins at Grammy‘s coffee table. Three visits (years) later, I’m an awkward junior-higher playing Grammy a song on the baby grand piano in that same living room. Click ahead a few more frames, and I’m a newlywed bringing my new husband to see the one constant physical place I’ve had in my life, Grammy’s house.

Then there are children to show her, my tiny branches from the family tree. They snuggle on her lap, then toddle on the floor, and they begin their own year-by-year memories of their great-grandmother, the only great-grandparent on my side of the family who they will remember. The other three died before my children could know them.

For many of the years past, Grammy has felt like the unchanging one, solid, always there, happy to see me, excited about all of the changes happening in my life. And always, every time since I showed her the first poem I wrote in junior high, asking me, “are you still writing? Are you still singing?”

In more recent years, Grammy has changed more noticeably. She remembers less, confuses the generations (my son is my brother, her grandchildren are her children . . .), talks more about the farm she grew up on, wonders where her parents are, can’t walk so well, doesn’t feel like eating . . . is generally growing out of life, “not long for this world,” as the old books used to put it. And still, each year when I visit, nearly the first thing out of her mouth when she sees me is “are you still writing? Are you still singing?”

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And so I sing for her, and for my mother, for myself, for my children, because we are all not long for this world. We are all and each of us touched by every year, every age, but never held in its grasp. Always moving on . . .

Here’s my song for week 32 of #songaweek2016:

Fertile soil brittle seed
Tender shoot luscious fruit
Fading flower falling leaves
Grieving ground resting roots

This is happening
These seasons turning to years
These years laying down marks
Uneraseable
Furrows plowed in flesh
Memories scattered like stars on the night sky of my mind

Every age may touch me
None will keep its grasp on me
I go on I go on I go on and on
Till I lay me down at last
In the great one’s arms

 

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It’s already week eight of #songaweek2016! Here’s my song:

Climb up on compassion’s lap and have a good cry

Don’t be afraid to tell her how you’re afraid to die

Everybody feels it

no matter what they know

everybody wonders

where their last thoughts go

Shhh, shhhh

A pile of poached ivory burned in sacrifice

Some things should not be bought or sold at any price

Every year’s a circle

Every day’s a spin

We’re angel demons dancing

On the head of a pin

Shhh, shhhh

Maybe like an aging star you will expand

Grow brighter, hotter, stronger before the end

Shhh, shhhh

Dive down to the deeps of doubt, let the dark surround

Lose yourself where you started out, wait to be found

Let the waves wash over

let the great fish come

be swallowed whole

by this strange new home

 

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I am lying beside him in the dark
he is touching my arm in his sleep
my mind lies fretfully, spinning visions round
my heart – locked in my chest and forced to watch:
………..him, old, forgetful, needing me to help him through the day
………..in ways I haven’t helped anyone since our babies.
This is coming
mind whispers to heart
brace yourself.

This after a summer Sunday spent with the children
………..she the preteen, filling out her jeans
………..dancing to pop music in the kitchen
………..he burning the last layers of baby fat
………..making jokes that make me laugh.
They are leaving
mind whispers to heart
brace yourself.

And I.Me.Myself
delicately
mind attempts in soothing tones to comfort heart:
I (including you – so we – who make me, myself) am dying,
but I will help you (so we, so me) brace my self.

Then heart
like a mother past ruffling
smiles a sunrise
touches the arm of mind
intones her lullaby:
I will not brace.
I will breathe
like I did yesterday
this morning
and a moment ago.
I (including you – so we – who make me, myself)
am living,

and I will help you (so we, so me)
embrace my life.

Now sleep.
Morning will come
As (you know and I believe)
It always does.

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I wrote this in my journal a few months ago:

To live, you must die. That’s a central idea to the Christian faith, one I am pondering in a new way as I work through my doubts.

I look in the mirror and see a dying woman. I feel and look so alive – healthy, vibrant, strong. But I know, deeper in my bones than ever, that I will die. I will go the way of all flesh. Ironically, yet so cliche, I face my doubts about immortality at the same time of life when I face the plain truth of my own impending demise.

It’s been weighing on me, pushing me towards despair, though I’ve been standing against it stubbornly, unmoving. But in not moving towards despair, I am also not moving towards life.

And so this “die to live” thing is making a new kind of sense to me. It’s like homeopathy. I can see death coming, inevitable. Instead of fighting it by standing still against the push of despair, I will go with death. I will embrace its truth, let it really sink in, body and soul.

Yes, I will die. Yes, my end is inevitable.

I think as it sinks in, I’ll live more freely. I’ll stop holding everything tight and closed, and let life flow. For all its worth.

A few nights ago my five-year-old son chose the wonderful book John Henry by Julius Lester for his bedtime story, and I read this: “Dying ain’t important. Everybody does that. What matters is how well you do your living.”

And earlier this year I listened more than once to the poignant interview Terry Gross had with author Maurice Sendak, the last she would have with him before he died. “Live your life, live your life, live your life,” were his parting words to her.

Unreasonable as it may be, I do still have faith that somehow I may exist beyond my inevitable end. But that is no longer what drives me to live. Maybe I’m making the reverse of Pascal’s Wager – just in case God does not exist, and this one life is all there is to me, shouldn’t I give it everything I’ve got?

Religion has worked long and hard to remove the fear of death from the human psyche, but the result is often a denial or suppression of that fear rather than a removal of it. And in denying our fear, we forgo the opportunity to face it and grow stronger in our real and present life. We pass up the challenge of summoning the courage and vision to live well even in the blank face of apparent meaninglessness.

One of the most haunting parables of Jesus, for me, is the parable of the talents. A master went away and left his servants in charge of different sums of money. When he returned, two of them had invested the money and made more money, and he rewarded them. The third one had hidden the money to keep it safe until the master returned. The master angrily took the money he had hidden and gave it to the other servants, then threw him out of the house.

Elsewhere Jesus said, if you save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life you will save it.

These words touch me now, differently than when I heard them preached in church. I’m hearing “risk” and “gamble” and “go big or go home.” I’m looking death right in the face, unable to see past or around that face, aware that with every moment I really live, I step closer to that cold, inscrutable face.

But I know there is no other way. I can live boldly right there in front of death’s face, or I can try to hide from death, but either way, death will find me. And when that finally happens, I want to know in those last moments that I have grown my one life into something richer and fuller than what I started with.

Rethinking one’s faith often includes the shock of new uncertainties in these matters of life and death. How has it been going for you?

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Old people in Rhode Island are dying. This matters to me because I knew them once, and once they knew me. But only for a time. I moved to Rhode Island when I was nearly five years old, and moved away when I was not as nearly six. I can still see the sun-drenched wood in the sanctuary of the village church where my dad pastored. I can smell it too – it is living and aged and clean, and conscientiously polished.

Robin’s mother Carol died a few years ago. Carol had soft brown eyes and was always kind to me. Her fisherman husband, Wayne, has phoned my parents every few years since we moved away thirty years ago. Last time Wayne called, when my dad asked, “how are you?” Wayne said simply, “Carol died.” He explained more, but that was beside the point. Carol died, and that’s how Wayne is. All your life together, you know it’s coming, you just don’t know which one of you will be first. Then you get a hint or two – a sickness that lingers, an irreversible fading – and now you know it’s coming, you know she will be first, but you can’t pinpoint the day or the hour. You eat together (if she can eat), you sleep (lightly), you go about your business the best you can, and then one day, one hour, she dies. And that is how you are, when people ask.

Last week Sharon’s mother Shirley died. After all these years, her laugh is still stored in my memory. So is her face, open and sturdy, with an elegant yet practical pile of curls atop her head. I maybe knew this as a child and forgot, but now, as I remember Shirley, I note a deep likeness with Wayne, and upon asking my parents, confirm that they were siblings.

Carol and Shirley knew me for a few months of my childhood. I wonder what they remembered about me? And where do those memories go when they die?

When we grieve the death of someone we knew, however much or little we knew them, are we partially grieving the death of our own footprints in that life? I imagine I’ll be experiencing this more in these years ahead, as I lose those with whom I’ve formed deeper bonds – grandparents already, someday parents, maybe lover, surely friends. Will I feel the breadth of my life, my being known in the world, shrink? Will I look back and see my trail overgrown and forgotten?

Of course, that’s why we write. We surely can’t rely on people to keep our memories alive. They simply won’t stick around. So we write or tell our stories in other ways, and pass them on to our children and their children – and we hope that in some way who we were and what we did will really mean something after all.

Robin and Wayne, and Shirley’s family John and Sharon, Duane, Ariane and J.B., and the others I don’t know who belong to them too, are grieving far more than any vague loss of self. I know this, and I honor their tears and heartache.

But I won’t call my thimblefuls of grief at the losses of Carol and Shirley narcissistic, though at face value that’s just what they seem. A tiny something of me stayed with each of those women, and even as they and those little memories have now died, so too the tiny memories I have of them live on in me. Of course I’ll die too, but I find this giving and taking, living and dying, between people widely separated by age and geography, who physically interacted for only a few months of a long lifetime, to be a talisman of hope on my journey.

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