Talking About Dominion, Reluctantly
On the public pages and in the private salons of our culture, we casually discuss celebrity infidelity, weight loss diets, corporate malfeasance and the treasonous acts and petty peccadillos of elected officials. We’ve no reluctance to ponder the doping habits of baseball heroes or debate the degradation of the environment and the end of life on earth as we know it. We’re all for quality education, and will speak up on its behalf, especially when all teachers can be armed. As conversationalists, we are bold and willing to wade in, willy-nilly, un-intimidated by any topic save for one. I can riff randily about a recent colonoscopy over dinner at a friends home, and get laughs, more wine and another helping of kale, heirloom tomatoes and quinoa. But the slightest suggestion that death is a suitable dinner table topic among aspiring gourmands and I am hustled through the sorbet and berry course and promptly shown the door, thank you.
Some of us, of a certain age, followed a rock band the past nearly-fifty years, whose name cavalierly included a death reference. While the lineup dwindled as a handful of players died of various causes, we marshaled on, until it was Jerry who was gone, and then the party was over. “Grateful Dead” was suddenly less clever and much more poignant.
Current popular culture is awash in the un-dead, with zombie television shows and movies convincing many of us the concept actually exists. We are fascinated by the walking dead. If we could only manage to get them to shop…
Faced with probing the one certainty common to all of us, the one guaranteed inevitability, the dark unknown outcome, we shy from the subject like a second-grader leaving his multiplication flash cards on the bus or like the other commuters trying not to stare at the kid with the leg brace.
Dylan Thomas went forth gently, maybe even boldly:
And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.
I want to keep you engaged, kind reader, so I have hesitated to broach this topic lately, while experiencing a keen interest in it that some close to me characterize as obsession. To a large extent it is natural: We age. We lose friends and family to an unknown end and are left wondering what’s behind door number two and which number we may be. Our bodies begin to telegraph the coming news and I find myself looking at my watch more than before, while waiting for the cardiologist. Many poets and storytellers have pondered death, well beyond Garcia-Marquez, Faulkner, and Thomas. As tortured students of literature we watched Bergman’s Seventh Seal over and over, feigning an understanding of the dude in the black hoodie. Bergman is easy when you are twenty. Hoodie Man gives me shivers these days.
Lately, in a fanciful mood, I determined to take my courage in my hands and be a leader in the discussion of death, despite my utter lack of training in the subject and my abiding ambiguous position on the whole thing. I created a Meet-Up group, paid the fee, posted it and went to sleep. I titled it something like “Looking for sixties baby-boomers wanting to talk about death.” I didn’t want any ambiguity. Or to surprise anyone: “This certainly wasn’t what I signed up for. What are your credentials, anyway?”
Without setting a date, time or place to gather, I had fourteen members by dinnertime the next day and two messages from other folks running death and dying, near death experience and after death message groups. I get the first two, but my Gmail account doesn’t accept messages from the afterworld. You know, Comcast. But there appears to be pent up interest in our looming demise. Maybe people signed up because they thought it would be about zombies.
So now I am faced with a dilemma. “Oh shit,” I thought. “What have you done? You’re not qualified to speak on this topic and that wasn’t the idea anyway. It was more about getting folks who are in the same predicament talking and getting comfortable with what’s next. Maybe enjoying a nice coffee cake or some homemade biscotti.”
I considered posting to the Meet-Up group that, unfortunately the organizer has suddenly passed away of acute anomie, but that seemed a cruel manipulation of needy seniors feelings.
I could just shut down the site and pretend I don’t know this guy and refuse to answer the telephone.
Or I can muscle up, set a date, find a friendly coffee shop, build some discussion topics, read Kubler-Ross and maybe some more Dylan Thomas and go forth, boldly and gently.
Confidentially, I am very conflicted about death. I have spent most of my life deeply engaged in one spiritual tradition or another, yet I still find myself short on insight about the next phase, and I yearn for solace around this issue. On dark days, I believe what comes next is an utterly void darkness for all of eternity, without the ability to even feel the void and dark. That feels cruel and sinister, not even being able to suffer. When I am upbeat, I think death will be just like any other adventure I have had, of going some place I didn’t particularly choose to go, like Cleveland, but that maybe I’ll find something interesting there. “Who knew Cleveland would have good Mexican food? Or a Clark’s shoe closeout store?”
For a topic so common to all, there should be a way to shed light on how a few of us feel. Are we afraid? Why? What do we believe will happen? What makes us think that? What should we do between now and then to prepare? Do we have the right apparel? Is it worth it to continue eating Greek yogurt, or does it matter anymore, when what I really love is biscuits and sausage gravy? Leonard Cohen, who recently turned eighty, famously proclaimed that he would resume smoking after a thirty-year hiatus, preferring the pleasures of the present to saving for the future. How do we feel about that? What would we resume doing if we knew our expiration date? What effect does “being good” have on what comes next? How do we know? If there isn’t any connection, would we act differently? Why?
I am happy to organize and manage my new group, but not to be its leader. I do want the discussion to follow some basic ground rules, however, and since it was my idea, the égalité I hope will follow needs to bend temporarily:
- Non-partisan, non-sectarian, non-ideological. No zealots or true-believers.
- No leader. We decide by consensus process.
- Abiding mutual respect and courtesy.
- Driven by a commitment to curiosity and inquiry versus opinions and conclusions.
I think we need a better name than mine. I fancy Death Watch, but through the process I will be open to others. This is a rather morbid Meet-Up name, though one goal I hope we can tackle will be to break down the notion that death is morbid and to be avoided. That never works out.
Other ideas include inviting speakers and experts to come talk to us, providing they meet the guidelines, especially any with firsthand experience of exactly what the heck the rest of us can expect next.
I welcome your ideas and suggestions, dear reader. Anything that will get us all to relax about this thing and be open to uncertainty, not knowing and wonder. I admit to revealing my vulnerabilities, but I appreciate your good humor. If you find yourself in my area and want to come by for some light-hearted group conversation and possibly a tasty coffee cake, please do sign up.