As we head into the dark of winter, we are also subject to “dark nights of the soul,” moments — or hours, days, weeks, months! — when our usual focus on the plenitude of life gets sucked into nothingness. As the Earth turns in on herself, so do we. She knows she will spring back eventually. Do we? What we do with the “down times” tends to be either immensely fertile or terrifying.
And yet, I am heartened by just how much the subject of death doesn’t seem to be quite as terrifying as before. Gradually, little by little, this most taboo of subjects does appear to be, if not exactly entering the mainstream, then at least eddying around its edges.
Me? I’ve always been fascinated by Death. Magnetically drawn to the sight of dead bodies as a kid, I never did convince my doctor dad to let me attend an autopsy. Why was I so fascinated? Because, I realize now, I wanted to personally sense the difference between the live body and a dead one, no longer animated by the life force. Like many people, recognition of the “empty shell” is what helped me recognize its opposite.
Not too many years later, I recognized that if I had to give a name to myself, then I’d have to call myself a pantheist, seeing God in everything, by which I meant, the life force. The entire universe is alive. I knew it, could feel it, and this knowledge dwelt there, inside my deepest being, underneath Catholic theology that separated God from “his” creation.
Once I took the Permaculture Design Course, yet another understanding penetrated my being: the entire universe is conscious, aware, intelligent. Not just alive, but working always in ways that we don’t understand, to both complexify and harmonize energies. The very first permaculture principle teaches us this. Observe and Interact. Observe, I might add, and be astonished. For if we humans have five senses with which to “capture” the momentum of living — and yes, some of us can open other, internal senses as well, but even so, the comparison is instructive. For She is all-seeing, all-knowing, in all ways. We humans are but bit players in the universal drama of Nature.
A drama that plays out endlessly, mysteriously, forms coming in and going out, wave upon wave upon the sea of forgetting and remembering. Nothing stays, everything changes. It helps to realize that. Helps to let go of our own egos, which try like hell to either banish what’s happening or fix it in place, keep it that way, forever. But it doesn’t work. We cannot control the life force, as a glimpse of our own inevitable death reminds us.
The prospect of dying has a way of snapping one’s entire life into perspective. And indeed, what is life but a preparation for dying? According to Carlos Casteneda, his shaman Don Juan remarked that “death walks by your left shoulder.” Yes, always. The more conscious we are of our own personal death, the greater the impetus for fuller living.
Check out, for example —
From the website:
Death is sanitized and hidden in contemporary culture to the point of becoming a taboo subject. We aim to subvert this death denial by opening up conversations with the public about death and its anthropological, historical, and artistic contributions to culture. In the spirit of the 18th-century salon, our informal intellectual gatherings include one multi-day annual Death Salon event and smaller one-day Death Salon events hosted in cities worldwide.
— and check out these two blog posts, both from the pages of In These Times, about Jane Miller’s process as she moved through her husband’s final days and weeks and the aftermath. Unusually blunt and instructive.
Having published an autobiographical account of my own spouse’s death, my grieving process, and our unusual 12-year relationship —
— I am perhaps unusually attuned to such matters. On the other hand, who has not gone through the grieving process after loss of someone close to them? Along with birth, this is the most universal of human experiences. We would be wise to study death and learn from all those who endeavor to consciously process this most intense passage.
Those who know that their life is ending and who choose to publicize this fact are both rare and precious. One of these is a local author, Carrol Krause, whose journey with ovarian cancer continues. The last I heard, she had been in Italy for Thanksgiving, and is truly living as she knowingly and gracefully moves towards her own death.
Another local person, in fact a neighbor of mine, Al Ruesink, whose conscious deathing process between April and August of this years was so heartfelt and thorough that it took my breath away, has now reappeared in the form of his “Last Lecture” as published in the local Herald-Times. Unfortunately, it requires a digital subscription to be viewed.
And I think back to Brittany Maynard, whose conscious deathing process was featured in People Magazine.
By the way, we can now decide to become a tree! Sweet.
And hey, even (presumably materialistic) science is now admitting the possibility of life after death.