I just received my card in the mail. It’s official. I am now old. Bona fide, as Ulysses Everett McGill would say. In another year, I will receive a second card further confirming the inevitable. I am at peace with this other than that, relative to my earned benefits, it feels like I have been queuing for a beer since I began working and earning money at age thirteen, and now, finally at the front of the line, aglow with anticipation, they plan to drain the keg out onto the ground, leaving me thirsty and with an empty glass. “Hey! I paid a couple hundred grand for that beer!”
But the end is coming, sooner than before, sooner each day. At times, perhaps sentimentally, I envy the dead. After all, there are more of them than us. And there are luminaries and scoundrels, geniuses and artists among the dead, somewhere.
I don’t mean to sound cavalier or flippant about dying. Of course it’s scary. The other day I heard someone say that the dying part is scarier than the being dead part. Who knows? Who can know? Part of me looks forward to finding out.
Friends have asked, “Do you believe in reincarnation?” I usually toss this off, saying something like, “I try not to believe in stuff, especially stuff I can’t know.”
Most often, I take their question to mean that there exists some cohesive entity looking a whole lot like “Geoff” that appeared many times in the past and will somehow reappear in the future, maybe a bit leaner and smarter, less stubborn and less fearful. I smile when I hear people recount their past life experiences, and most often they describe being princesses or warriors or great leaders, astride an eighteen-hand black steed, thundering across the Mongolian steppe, or Napoleon. I can’t recall one of these stories where the speaker was a serf or a slave or a scullery maid.
Ultimately, I have no idea about past or future lives and don’t care all that much. Things are busy enough right now. But pondering it is interesting. You know, to pass the time.
I think the scientists have as keen a view about this question as anyone, philosophers or mystics alike. In her excellent The Vow-Powered Life, Jan Chōzen Bays, MD, speaks to some of the related science. Bays says,
“Although this might be a disturbing idea, that we are made up of parts of other people and beings or that we are only made up of what we call “others”, it makes sense from a biological point of view. The calcium in my bones is very, very old. It was created not long after the Big Bang, and in the intervening 13.8 billion years, it became part of countless bodies, animals, plants and people, before being incorporated into my teeth and bones. After I die, ‘my’ calcium will be passed on to innumerable other beings, becoming blades of grass, then the tiny bones of the mouse that hides within them, and then the feathers of the hungry owl that swoops down upon the mouse. Some of my calcium may trickle down through the watershed and out into the ocean, to be incorporated into the shells of small sea creatures. Countless beings will eventually inherit ‘my’ calcium…”
If calcium has consciousness, as some assert, then sure, perhaps I may have some calcium from that Mongolian warlord and a tingle of an old memory of galloping through knee-high grasses.
Perhaps you and I share some calcium and intimate memories as well.
Joan Didion, one of our finest essayists, bravely faced the issue of death in her beautiful 2005 work, The Year Of Magical Thinking, where she looked squarely and unflinchingly at the loss of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne and her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne both within a short span of time. Her courage to bear witness to herself and her emotions and then share them with us without judgment, apology or categorization took my breath away. Her work is rich with atomic heart nuggets. This one struck me:
“We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
Joan embraces her responsibility as a writer fully, that is, not to tell us what will make us feel better, not to be a role model or to seed hope. But rather to look, see and report fearlessly on what is. And when that “what is” involves the observer herself, most intimately, things can get complicated, and turning away would be understandable. Is there a more challenging topic on which to report than your child’s death, or innocent people’s deaths or one’s own death?
I have lost many beloved family and friends, as well as heroes and icons I never met but loved also. Of course, there is much more death to come, so tucking into the topic now seems to be good planning. Each time it’s happened, whether it was my parents, my friend John or Leonard Cohen, time seemed to slow and the details of my life that I too often overlooked came into sharp contrast and vivid color. This happened when my kids were born, too. What is this? Maybe life taking me by the shoulders and giving me a little shake, saying ”Wake up, Geoff!”?
The estate of the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, author and actor, Sam Shepard, just published his much anticipated memoir, Spy Of The First Person, wherein Sam gives us the inside and outside view of himself dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Sam placed himself in the first person and then a second character, his “spy” also writing in the first person, observed him, as Sam’s limbs failed him, his bodily controls slipped out of control, and his ability to type, and then to write by hand all left him. His prose is spare, effectively repetitive, disarming and at times, magical. We’re not clear how much is memory and how much is hallucination. And, it matters not in the least. I read this passage several times, from the perspective of the spy, a fellow in a chair similar to Sam’s, across the street:
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know where he came from. I discovered him quite by accident. Bent backwards, gasping for air. One day I was sitting here much the way as he’s sitting now, twiddling my thumbs, and I was looking out across the road and I saw this chair rocking back and forth and then I saw that somebody was in it. And there he was. He just appeared. I don’t know whether he rented or bought the house and then invited his people there or whether they were already there and he came to visit them or whether he’s on a short-term lease. I don’t know exactly. Sometimes people appear like that out of nowhere. They just appear and then they disappear. Very fast. Just like a photograph that emerges from a chemical bath.”
While Sam is not Faulkner and this work is not As I Lay Dying, it has the power to stop time. I ponder who is this spy?
In this exercise I had no burning questions to answer nor beliefs to bolster. When faced with big life questions I most often come back to the practical or the immediate: “So, what do I do next? How do I live? What is the right way to deal with this looming death?”
In Allen Ginsberg’s poem from 1975, Gospel Noble Truths, I see him offering us a complete set of instructions on how to live and how to die. The last few lines of his piece are wonderful, simple and comprehensive:
Look when you look
Hear what you hear
Taste what you taste here
Smell what you smell
Touch what you touch
Think what you think
Let go let it go slow
Earth Heaven & Hell
Die when you die
Die when you die
Lie down you lie down
Die when you die
Curtis Mayfield said, “People get ready, there’s a train a comin’…”. I know that now and I have the credentials to prove it. Shepard had the gift of certainty, and the foreknowledge that it not only was coming, but more or less when. There could be some peace in knowing, but most of us don’t get that luxury. For us it’s more like those water fountain features in parks and city plazas where water intermittently and randomly squirts up, soaking the diaper babies and squealing toddlers who dance about in tenuous but gleeful anticipation, scarcely noticing they are near hypothermia.
I only ask that it be quick, the end of this short-term lease. I don’t cotton to being cold and wet. But I won’t have that choice, now, will I?