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A Matter of Death and Life

Dec 30, 2013

This season has always been a contemplative one for me. Each moment of joy paired with one of melancholy, if not outright sorrow. As a child, my excitement opening each door on the Advent Calendar, counting the days ‘til Christmas, was underscored by a pit-of-the-tummy awareness that the sooner the longed-for day arrived, the sooner it would be over. Years before I could put this sentiment into words, I recognized that each step along the preparatory journey to Christmas was where the magic lay. Each anticipatory ritual: decorating the house, cutting our own tree Christmas Vacation-style, baking cookies, making ornaments, wrapping presents, reading stories, lighting the Advent candles, even grocery shopping, was imbued with the purposeful intention of people on a joyful quest toward a certain destination. Awareness of the finite-nature of the journey, the fact that it would all be over on Christmas Day, revealed possibilities hidden during so-called ordinary time.

But must it be this way? Isn’t time always what we make of it and each moment as available to our senses as any other? Aren’t we, all of us, on a journey toward death—our ultimate, unavoidable destination? Well, sure, we are. But mostly we don’t think of our lives this way. We don’t have a date on the calendar circled in red. Our last day on Earth is hidden from us.

Mostly we assume our death will be so far off that we can afford to take for granted a significant portion of the ordinary time between now and then. Mostly we tell ourselves we can afford not to think of each day as extraordinary as it brings us one 24-hour cycle closer to a red-circled date on a future calendar. Mostly we tell ourselves that thoughts of death are depressing and best avoided for mental health reasons. We remain unschooled in considering that acknowledgement of life’s certain end is the root source of life’s joys. We are unaware that the magical mystery tour that is life on Earth is only made moreso by the conscious recognition of the fact that the tour will end. Date and time as yet unconfirmed.

How else to explain the ease with which we find ourselves experiencing each day of our finite lives as less a step along a preparatory journey full of magic and mystery than as something to be endured? How easily we are convinced that we have time enough to waste, time enough even, to kill, as if time were a spearmint plant escaped to the vegetable garden “and there’s plenty more where that came from.” As if we will find ourselves, when we arrive at that red-circled day, wishing we’d had fewer days in the run-up. If only we’d had less time.

Sorry, I can’t imagine it. It just doesn’t play.

Which is not to say that I, myself, have mastered the art of living in the present moment, the extraordinary time of the sentient here-and-now. Or no longer find myself looking at the schedule for the week ahead and thinking: I can’t wait ‘til this is over. I haven’t cured myself of fretting over the past or worrying about the future—as sure ways of killing time as were ever invented. I’ve squandered many an hour wishing I were somewhere else rather than being where I am.

I can say, however, that at the fulsome age of 47, I do recognize the difference. The difference between living in awareness of that red-inked date and living in denial of it. The difference between walking lightly, on an anticipatory path, and trudging an endless trail to nowhere.

Of the bountiful blessings of life at Brightside perhaps the most important is the attention living here demands. Attention is, essentially, notice taken. In much the same way that I remember the constant careful notice taken in the month-long preparation for my childhood Christmas, I am challenged to take notice in my daily life here. What in another context might be mistaken for an endless progression of anonymous days marking ordinary time becomes something far less anonymous and far more extraordinary on this mountain, where we live so closely tied to the weather, the seasonal cycles, the products of the earth, and the needs of the animals. At Brightside, living distracted or disconnected from the progress of time can lead to consequences from the inconvenient and unfortunate to the disastrous, even deadly. Up here, off grid on an Allegheny dirt road, we must be capable of some modicum of self-sufficiency. Of course, these are the facts of life anywhere one lives, but so much of our modern American existence is designed to encourage our forgetfulness of this fact. At Brightside, we forget at our peril. And being forgetful humans, we are often reminded.

There is no substitute for attention. The present moment is, as many a wise one has said, the only moment. This extraordinary time is the only time. And yet our minds are so easily enticed away from present-ness. Distraction robs us of time, the only currency we can ever own. Yet we willingly, even enthusiastically, empty our minds to the salve of distraction even as we empty our pockets.

I was beyond fortunate this year to attend the death of my grandmother, to pay close attention to her in her last days. Surrounded by my brother, mother, aunts and uncles, I held her hand as she exhaled her last breath. For more than a week prior, all of us her children and grandchildren told her—we told her as if we knew best—that it was time. Time for her to let go. Let go, Mother! Let go, Grandmama! I believed she was ready for her departure. After all, she seemed beyond hope, unable to speak or move much at all, what sort of life was this? Yet the day before she was to be transferred from the hospital to hospice, she roused herself to proclaim to the attending physician that she wasn’t going to die. Not about to! She wasn’t anywhere near ready to let go. She was fighting for a few more seconds of extraordinary time to the very last breath. And when that very last breath had been taken and exhaled, my first and enduring thought was how sudden it was. The death we had all been waiting-upon for more than a week occurred without timpani or trumpet blast. It occurred, under the best possible circumstances for a 91-year-old woman, with loving attention, stories and jokes and oldies on the i-pod. It was expected, even anticipated, and yet it came too soon.

That’s how death is. Regardless how inevitable, it still arrives as a surprise. The finality of it. No do-overs. No take-backs. No amends. One extraordinary moment a life is everything it is and ever will be. The next moment, that life doesn’t exist. The absence is palpable, irreplaceable, immense.

Since my grandmother’s death last April, I’ve come to the idea that we, each of us, carry our death with us from the moment of our birth. A shadow-twin, unseen, only occasionally felt. The extent to which we embrace that twin may be the extent to which we find the heart to live each day as extraordinary time, in the full knowledge that a day will arrive as ours to step aside and our twin’s to take precedence.

While “Happy New Year!” might seem a dissonant wish after such writings about death, I ask you, dear reader, to delve deeper. Dare to imagine that in this year ahead we are, all of us, when all is said and done, engaged in nothing more nor less than a planetary journey, attached to a revolving orb hurtling through the galaxy. Once you wrap your mind around this fact, one begins to understand just how tenuous the business of life truly is. Embrace of our singular demise is, all at once, both the very most and least of it.

In any case, celebration of our day-to-day survival is definitely in order.

Carpe diem! Sieze the day!