I remember taking practice exams and ultimately the pre-SAT’s and the SAT’s, and reading a piece about a nautilus. For you foreigners who are not familiar with testing and American school systems, those are the tests required to gain entrance to any university. The piece of writing likened the chambers of the nautilus to memory – how you can box up things you no longer need and stuff them into the previous chamber, as this mollusk only lives in the largest and outermost chamber of its shell. Mathematically, the nautilus demonstrates perfectly the naturally occurring Fibonacci sequence of numbers in its growth and proportions.
The empty chambers sealed off at the center of the spiral serve to aid in buoyancy as it navigates the seas. The nautilus still maintains chambers that hold its history, as it inhabited every single one of the chambers inside its shell at one point or another, but it outgrew each of them. It grew bigger and moved onward and upward.
I compare myself to the nautilus. The person I was at 18 was a discreet distinct person, who only knew what she knew then. So much of the world was undiscovered for me. I still hadn’t travelled internationally, and had only just entered college. I branched out on my own due to my fierce independence, separating from my parents, my hometown, and all the friends I’d made up until that point. I threw myself in the metaphorical deep end, and I didn’t sink nor did I drown. I swam, after I found my rhythm, my stroke, and my contribution to give.
I have since put so much that happened in the past into the sealed chambers of my shell, or if you will, in the file cabinet of my life that some religious being may want to peruse one day to judge me. There will be good; there will be bad. There will be noble and honorable; there will be selfish and petty. I try not to pull open the drawers or attempt to access the sealed chambers. What’s done is done, and wasting time regretting would be of no use. I admit that’s not the best approach, as one could argue learning from the past means you’re not necessarily doomed to repeat it. The way I see it, I have a whole life to live, and a whole lot of mistakes to make. I’d rather focus on the future and what that may bring.
It’s weird to think at death, some religious being may perform a reconciliation of our “account”, to use accounting terms as a metaphor. My cursing sailor mouth and my donation to charity may be weighed against each other. That time I snorted milk up my nose and out my eye is going to potentially be compared to some horribly risqué nun joke I told while inebriated at a work function.
Death seems like a final tally, a T account with debits and credits (you know you love accounting references). You build up a balance of good (hopefully), but every once in a while, you need to deduct the bad. I used to naively think as a kid I wouldn’t do anything bad, then I could be the best person. That’s no way to live. As Katharine Hepburn famously said, “If you follow all the rules, you miss all the fun,” or something to that effect (didn’t bother to google this one to correct myself, but I think I already quoted it in one of my blog posts once.)
It happens to everyone, and I think every person must do their own reconciliation. I don’t know if some religious spiritual being is going to care enough to record my final tally. I may simply be in the “miscellaneous” suspense account. Until my life’s purpose is sorted and lived, who knows?
I may have mentioned in a previous blog a Dying, Death, and the Afterlife course I took at Chico State. It was technically a religious studies course, and we had a ton of really interesting books on the syllabus to satiate our hungry minds on the topic. At the time I took the course, I’d only lost one person somewhat close to me – a chemistry lab partner who got into a car accident just after his 16th birthday. So it would be fair to say I’d never experienced real loss before that course. Not that kind that fucks you up and knocks you sideways, anyway. Digression – Sideways is a great song by Citizen Cope – check it out here if you like:
One of the key takeaways I had from that class included the fact that Puritanical settlements in the early days of US history were founded on quite morbid principles. Death was such a common player in everyday life that Puritanical townships were actually constructed around a graveyard. That is to say, every town had a graveyard first, and the city then grew up around that graveyard. Puritanical life saw a much shorter life span for these adventurers and new world explorers. Society needed an institution to handle grief, before it needed any kind of government building or commercial business. Some family plots even had their own gravesites right on the property, and that tradition continues on many private pieces of land even today.
On our booklist in that course, in case you’re interested, were C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being (one of my favorites to this very day), and When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner, to mention a few.
Grief itself is almost a science. This institution, creating socially acceptable means to handle grief, is extensive and is a billion dollar industry, between funeral homes, cremation costs, world travels you sign up for when you realize life is just too damn short, and the like.
One of my favorite poems discovered in my high school advanced placement literature class (taught by a wealthy eccentric whose doctor husband kept her in a lifestyle to which she’d become accustomed so she had time to read and form her own interpretation of many literary pieces), was John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.
The poem uses metaphors and comparisons, each describing a way of looking at two lovers’ separation that will help them to avoid the mourning the loss of the other. If you have a significant other or loved one from whom you’ve been separated for any length of time, you can relate to the hearkening your heart feels towards them: how the sound of their voice plays in your head, you see them when they’re not there, you miss their smell, and your body actually aches in the absence of their touch. True yearning for just a moment with them.
The speaker in the poem declares that, since the lovers’ two souls are one, the departure of one of the lovers will simply expand the area of their unified soul, rather than cause a rift between them. So if my loved one is across the world, we live in that much bigger of a world. My favorite metaphor is that of a compass, where the two lovers’ souls are “two” instead of “one”, and one is the foot of the compass, holding steady, while the other circumnavigates and travels a circle around them, yet they know they’ll return to being side by side once the compass is done being used.
Not on our syllabus, but something I watched later in life I added to my so-called Contemplation About Death soup recipe is the likes of movies like Donnie Darko especially, and honorable mentions to Minority Report, The Butterfly Effect and Memento. Consideration of questions and all things death is key; but the impact of memory and our own brain deficiencies/gifts makes them that much better.
From the opening of the movie Donnie Darko, I was captivated. Tears for Fears. Drew Barrymore. A young Maggie Gyllenhaal (with real-life brother Jake). Deeply contemplative issues (like “how exactly does one suck a fuck?”). Some old lady with a silver 80’s pseudo mullet who loved checking her mailbox. A load of crap cult trying to brainwash people on love and fear led by a child pornographer. Mental illness vs. sanity, and the need for pills vs. the desire to not be on them, so you could know what’s real and what’s not. Consideration of other dimensions and time travel. Contemplation of impacts of choice versus fate, ripples in time, and escaped fatalies. I loved the concept of time travel and the globular clear gel goo that preceded character’s movements at one point in the film, and likened them to be a vision of what destiny or powers of prediction might look like to new eyes.
There is great cliff notes synopsis of the movie here in case you really want to break down Donnie Darko.
My favorite quote of the movie, to pursue a slight tangent (but I digress):
Donnie: [taking a cigarette] What happens if you tell Mom and Dad about this, Sam?
Samantha Darko: You’ll put Ariel in the garbage disposal.
Donnie: Goddamn right I will.
Spoiler alert, but Donnie has to die to amend the impacts of the ripple seen at the beginning of the film when he initially misses his death from the jet engine of an unknown plane falling into his bedroom. The countdown, the end of the world, is the end of his world. Of course it’s an important date worth counting down. I could argue that a smart person wouldn’t want to know the day they’re going to die though. Ruins the fun, adventure, and possibly the whole ride. We want to love the ride.
Like the institution of marriage, humans have created an institution to come to terms with death. We put infirm elderly people in homes because they require special care, and sometimes we don’t have the time or resources ourselves to care for them anymore. In my finance courses in college, Long Term Care is actually something people universally plan for now, assuming their families can’t/won’t take care of them. There’s insurance for that. You betcha.
It’s so much harder to deal with an unexpected death than it is to come to terms with one you knew was coming. It’s harder to deal with the death of a life cut too soon, perhaps a child, than it is to deal with the death of senior citizens. It’s easier to lay someone to rest properly and begin healing if you have a wake, a funeral pyre, a memorial service, or some kind of public forum where loved ones can express their grief. Let it out, don’t keep it in. This is all a part of the Institution of Grief.
What we don’t realize is that we carry grief with us all the time. When we cry at a funeral, we’re not done dealing with the death of a loved one. Oh no – it’s far from over. We ache and miss them every time we remember them. We feel all kinds of emotions – relief, anger, fear, sadness, depression, disconnection, insular, bargaining, loss. While we can find socially acceptable means of releasing that emotion, we worry about those who don’t “get over it” within a “reasonable” amount of time. There is something wrong if they can’t move on.
We don’t understand, if we believe in God, how He (or She) could let such a horrible thing happen to someone He (She) created and loved. We may lose faith, our loved ones may isolate themselves from us while we trudge through all this emotional mud. If we’re lucky, we come out the other side, just a little bit stronger despite the loss.
Death should be the celebration of a life well-lived. It is merely a stage, yet it’s so foundational in our core. It still intrigues me, to the point of not wanting to know much about it. I don’t want to be an EMT first on the scene of a motorcycle crash, nor do I think I’m capable of handling a grief for that stranger I may find. I don’t want to be a doctor, and have someone’s fate lie in my shaky hands, when I may not believe in myself or get woozy at the sight of mangled flesh. I’m a feeler, not a thinker. In the Meyers-Briggs test I last took, I was an INFP – Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perception. Yes, I am, in fact, an idealist at heart.
- I – Introversion preferred to extraversion: INFPs tend to be quiet and reserved. They generally prefer interacting with a few close friends rather than a wide circle of acquaintances, and they expend energy in social situations (whereas extraverts gain energy).
- N – Intuition preferred to sensing: INFPs tend to be more abstract than concrete. They focus their attention on the big picture rather than the details, and on future possibilities rather than immediate realities.
- F – Feeling preferred to thinking: INFPs tend to value personal considerations above objective criteria. When making decisions, they often give more weight to social implications than to logic.
- P – Perception preferred to judgment: INFPs tend to withhold judgment and delay important decisions, preferring to “keep their options open” should circumstances change.
When my own father passed away on June 3, 2013, we didn’t have a formal funeral. My mom held a memorial a year later in the hometown where they met and married, and his and her friends from way back attended. I was across the country, and didn’t have any kind of ceremony to attend.
I was still living in Australia at the time. My father always asked me when I came home to visit if I’d been to Ayers Rock (Uluru) yet. The trip before he passed, I still hadn’t, so I booked the trip with my girlfriend in December to go in July. I didn’t even tell him I’d booked it. I was gonna tell him about it after I went.
I didn’t get to. I took some of his ashes – little known fact – you can transport ashes internationally, but they need to be in checked baggage if the amount you have represents more than 10% of a person. I took approximately 9.5% of my dad’s “person” as carry-on back to Sydney, along with a death certificate to shut up any TSA agent who gave me a hard time about it. No one did. I took his ashes with me to Uluru and found a spot to scatter them. Forever, a piece of him will rest at a lookout spot overlooking Uluru. I took a photo of the view, had it made into a canvas, and now I keep that canvas in my apartment, so I can see what he sees there.
I had no socially acceptable outlet to release my grief, so I made my own. I played the following playlist on my iphone speakers, then did a reading from a book my dad introduced me to:
- Father and Son – Cat Stevens
- Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd
- Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
- Landslide – Fleetwood Mac (live version Stevie dedicates to her daddy)
The book my father handed to me to learn about death as a child was Emir’s Education in the Proper Use of Magical Powers by Jane Roberts. The passages I read out loud to no one but my dad’s ashes, myself and my now ex-girlfriend that day was as follows:
“The spirits of people and creatures and plants don’t take up any room at all. But their bodies do. Bodies are like houses our spirits live in, only they’re far nicer, of course. There’s only room for so many bodies in the kingdom, whether they’re plant bodies or creature bodies or people bodies. After a while, we have to leave our body-houses to make room for new things.”
“When you leave your body, it just folds up and goes back into the ground or swamp or whatever, and it’s made into another one. Then somebody else moves into it. It comes out all brand-new. It has to be painted and remodeled.”
“Emir said: “This way everyone lives in a body of a kind for a while, and then leaves its body behind so that it can be remade for someone else. That’s a very simple explanation, but it will do for now. Then all new life has a chance to live, and lots of room. Then we each take turns, so we can come back on new bodies when there’s space available.”
So perhaps one day, my obituary may appear in the classified ads section of the newspaper, starting with, “For rent…” It was mine for a little while, but I learned how to share, and now, it’s your turn. Enjoy the ride.