Yesterday, my conversation was with a man recovering from a five month bout of shingles complicated by a blood clot in his leg.
Two days before that, my talk was with a man who had just been shot at point blank at close range at midnight in his car when he stopped at an intersection. (Luckily, the window was closed, and though it shattered, he was unhurt.)
The day before that, I talked with a woman who has just lost her job, and suddenly realizes that for the past ten years she has not felt her old fire in the belly for any work that she has done. And, finally, on that same day, a conversation with another woman who has just recognized, now, over 40 years later, that an early love was her soul mate, just as he began to die from pancreatic cancer.
In each case, the situation that these beautiful human beings have found themselves in recently has felt like a crossroads, a wake-up call, to begin to live an utterly authentic life.
Like many people, I have also reached this kind of crossroads at various times. Each one has put me in close proximity to my own death — either in actuality, or metaphorically, in that death felt like what lay ahead if I continued in that same direction, so did I want to?
And if I didn’t want to, what would change?
Last winter, I came to one of these crossroads again. This time there was no big drama attached, nothing specific in this life that I needed to let go of. Rather, for the first time, every area of my life had a “been there done that” sort of feeling. Nothing was keeping me here; I was done.
I told this to my son, Colin, who panicked. He knows my attitude towards death; that I will go willingly towards it, when the time comes. That I will let go of this body the way that old back-to-the-land pioneer Scott Nearing did, consciously, easily, slip out of this three-dimensional density like a butterfly from an old, dried up cocoon.
It was during this last crossroads moment, that I was impulsed to first name, and then explore, the fertile, wide-open field of exopermaculture: bridging above and below. Once again, I’m excited, and enjoy life in the body.
A month ago, I visited my parents, both of whom are in their mid-90s, and physically infirm. One day, when I remarked that the only thing they seem to want to eat is sugar, my Dad said, “Well, we’ll see what you want to eat when you’re our age!” I replied that I didn’t plan to getting to that age, if it meant that my body was failing me. That I planned to leave consciously, whenever my work here was done and I could no longer be of service.
This kind of talk unsettles most people; they grow restless, uneasy, afraid.
I suggest that fear of anything specifc is really fear of death. And that because we identify with the body, we fear death as annihilation, a blinking out of existence altogether. So, when I sense fear in anyone, for any reason, I simply say, “Remember, you are not your body.”
Let me quote here from the story of how Scott Nearing died, as told by his wife by Helen Nearing.
At The End Of A Good Life
Scott Nearing’s dignified death, like his life,
sets an inspiring example for all of us
by Helen Nearing
Perhaps the most profound reason for our intensely consumptive lifestyle is, at bottom, our fear of death. “You can’t take it with you,” as they say – though you can try to numb the terror with the things that money can buy. But in his purposeful death by fasting at the age of 100, Scott Nearing demonstrated that there are better, simpler choices.
Throughout their lives, Helen & Scott Nearing were a living example of the possibility of such choices. Their experience, memorialized in Living the Good Life and a string of other books, has been an inspiration to thousands of people looking for an alternative to modern industrialism. On their homesteads first in Vermont and later Penobscott Bay, Maine, the Nearings built, made, grew and collected nearly everything they needed. Yet they still found plenty of time for nourishing their inner lives and giving to others – through music, education, writing and speaking.
Here Helen Nearing, who still lives at the Maine homestead, recounts the story of Scott’s purposeful passing. For more information about the Nearings’ rich-yet-simple lives and their many books, write to Social Science Institute, Harborside, ME 04642.
Doctors practice medicine. Scott and I intended to write a book together, We Practice Health, which never eventuated, though we wrote much on the subject in various chapters of our homesteading books Living the Good Lifeand Continuing the Good Life. We rarely if ever used doctors, pills, or hospitals. Yet Scott lived to a hale and hearty 100 and died when he decided to – by fasting for a month and a half at the very end.
He had always been physically active, in the woods, in the garden, in building construction. He was also active mentally, having written 40 or more books from his 20’s to his 90’s, including an autobiography, The Making of a Radical.
“Work,” said Scott, “helps prevent one from getting old. My work is my life. I cannot think of one without the other. The man who works and is never bored, is never old. A person is not old until regrets take the place of hopes and plans. Work and interest in worthwhile things are the best remedy for aging.” Still, he was facing the end and knew it.
Interviewed in 1981 he said “I look forward to the possibility of living until I’m 99.” His blue eyes twinkled. “It is a precarious outlook, I assure you. With age, your facility of expression and perception diminishes. I have almost nothing left but time. But if I can be of service, I would like to go on living.” Walt Whitman, at a far earlier age (70) said, “The old ship is not in a state to make many voyages, but the flag is still on the mast and I am still at the wheel.”
Most people begin to get old in their 60’s. Scott only began to be old in his 90’s. Up to then if anyone called him old I was outraged, because he neither looked nor felt old. Sure, he had plenty of wrinkles. They came in his 50’s from a lot of hard work in the sun. But failing and getting feeble? No.
He did more than his share of mental and physical work up to his last years. At 98 he said “Well, at least I can still split and carry in the wood.” And when he was close to the end, lying in our living room, his one regret at leaving this Earth plane was on watching me lug in the wood for our kitchen stove. “I wish I could help with that,” he said. He was a help unto the end.
A month or two before he died he was sitting at table with us at a meal. Watching us eat he said, “I think I won’t eat anymore.” “Alright,” said I. “I understand. I think I would do that too. Animals know when to stop. They go off in a corner and leave off food.”
So I put Scott on juices: carrot juice, apple juice, banana juice, pineapple, grape – any kind. I kept him full of liquids as often as he was thirsty. He got weaker, of course, and he was as gaunt and thin as Gandhi.
Came a day he said, “I think I’ll go on water. Nothing more.” From then on, for about ten days, he only had water. He was bed-ridden and had little strength but spoke with me daily. In the morning of August 24, 1983, two weeks after his 100th birthday, when it seemed he was slipping away, I sat beside him on his bed.
We were quiet together; no interruptions, no doctors or hospitals. I said “It’s alright, Scott. Go right along. You’ve lived a good life and are finished with things here. Go on and up – up into the light. We love you and let you go. It’s alright.”
In a soft voice, with no quiver or pain or disturbance he said “All…right,” and breathed slower and slower and slower till there was no movement anymore and he was gone out of his body as easily as a leaf drops from the tree in autumn, slowly twisting and falling to the ground.
So he returned to his Maker after a long life, well-lived and devoted to the general welfare. He was principled and dedicated all through. He lived at peace with himself and the world because he was in tune: he practiced what he preached. He lived his beliefs. He could die with a good conscience.
As to myself and my old age: I try to follow in his footsteps. It is not so easy homesteading alone, but I carry on. A few more years and I also will experience the great Transition. May I live halfway as good a life and die as good a death.