Friday, June 24, 2011

On Appreciating the Fragile Nature of Life


It is a glorious sunny day, and I am sitting on my favorite (okay only) chaise lounge by the window watching the sun is streaming in through the blinds and feeling a delicate breeze sweep across my arms as I type.  It is one of those beautiful days that makes grateful and happy to be alive.  Given all of that, I am going to write to you today about death.  Why?  Because once again, death is on my mind – and I figured it would be good to share some of my thoughts about it with you.

You see -- unlike some of my peers who blissfully go through life assuming that they are invincible and never let such a somber topic cross their mind, I think about death on average about once every day, sometimes more.  I’m not entirely sure why.

My Totaled Toyota Corolla
It could be because I’ve had one close colleague die suddenly of a brain aneurism and one close colleague die of a heart attack within the past three years.  It could be because I’ve had several near death experiences in the past 10 years – I’ve gotten hit by a car crossing the street, ran my car spinning in circles off the road, ended up in the ER due to an electrolyte imbalance, and most recently fell down a flight of stairs a few month’s ago.  It could be because I live in Earthquake country and the next big one could happen any second.  It could be because I love Grey’s Anatomy (which takes place in a hospital with people dying) or because I live in a culture that predicts the end of the work in 2012 and constantly emphasizes plane crashes and gas explosions and natural disasters on the news.  

I suspect it is due some combination of all the factors that I’ve mentioned…and probably other subtler factors of which I’m not even fully conscious.   Either way, it doesn’t really matter – the fact is, lately I think about death at least once very day – sometimes on the bus, sometimes walking home, often late at night on this very chaise lounge.  

Usually I am alone – and I wonder if I’m going to make it until my next interaction with someone- or if this is it – right here.   I suppose in a way it’s a symptom of spending more time alone lately.   Usually we spend our whole frantically running from activity to activity trying to avoid the natural fragility of life – and I’ve made a point to stop doing that.  I’ve made a point to start focusing as much attention as possible on the present moment because it is all we really have.

To be clear, when I think about death each day, I am not thinking about wanting to die – I am not contemplating suicide or ways to kill myself.  No, quite the opposite – I want to liveI want to live very much.  I want to continue this great adventure for as long as I can.  I want to die at the ripe age of 97 or 102 – with grandkids and great-grandkids running around at my funeral.  I want to find and marry a life partner and ride the waves of a long-term committed relationship that lasts beyond the 7-year itch.  I want to wax poetic with new generations of students about the wee old days when there was no Internet and people looked up dry cleaners in the phone book and movie listings in the newspaper.   I want to learn new things, write a book, get pregnant, go on a silent retreat, take a cruise somewhere beautiful, and experience everything that this life has to offer. 

Yet – I’d be naïve to assume that I’m going to live forever.  I’d be deluding myself to keep missing the present in my quest to get to the future – as we all frequently do day after day.  Even if I were lucky enough to live another 60 years, I’d be kidding myself to assume that hundreds of loved ones aren’t going to die and leave me by the time I get there.  In time, every single person in my life – including me – is going to die.  We are human – it’s what we do.  We are born, we live, and we die.  

Beginnings and endings are the very fabric of life.  Every day, we’re surrounded of examples of them– my Biodanza teacher just got engaged (new beginning); an acquaintance of mine just had a new baby (new beginning); the Bombay Creamery ice cream store in town just closed (ending –and I never even got to try it); an acquaintance of mine just had a baby (new beginning); a colleague of mine is leaving USF (ending).

From what I’ve heard in dharma talks, Buddhists say that it’s not necessarily bad for us to form connections to things and have relationships – to enjoy living, to enjoy a favorite possession, etc.  It’s not bad that I want to live and have goals for things that I’d like to achieve in my life.   One famous Buddhist teacher has a favorite mug that he likes to drink tea out of – and someone asked him one time if liking that mug wasn’t really a form of attachment.  The teacher answered him that he loves that mug – but yet it doesn’t make him suffer because every time he looks at it, he pictures it falling to the ground and shattering to pieces – in other words, he knows it is precious because it is not going to be there forever – he loves and appreciates it – but he is not resisting the natural law of impermanence – he is not resisting the fact that someday it will not be with him.

I wouldn’t say I enjoy thinking about death on a daily basis – it is not an experience that I would call pleasant.  Still, it is an experience that wakes me up and encourages me to appreciate every moment; to appreciate every person – and to remember the utter preciousness of life.  It also seems to prepare me for some of the losses that I know I will experience – so that hopefully when they happen I can take them in with as much ease as possible, feeling grateful for the times that I have had with those people and those practices near and dear to my heart.

While there is so much more than I want to achieve and experience in my life, I am extremely grateful for everything that I have been able to see and do and learn so far.   Looking back over the years, it feels like I have lived several lifetimes over already – each phase of my life has brought out a different element of my essence, a different part of my personality.   I have so much wonder and amazement thinking about the places I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, and the ideas and practices that have been shared with me.  I feel lucky to live in one of the most picturesque cities on earth.  I don’t know where or how much longer the ride will take me – but I know one thing – it’s been an amazing ride so far.  :)

To close for tonight, I’m including below a link to a song which always makes me think of death when I listen to it – “Somewhere, a Clock Is Ticking” by Snow Patrol – it’s a bit haunting but very moving.  I’m also including a voiceover from the Season Six finale of Grey’s Anatomy that speaks to some of these ideas – it was from an episode where the husband of a deceased patient came into the hospital and started shooting doctors and bystanders at random to avenge the death of his wife (and you wonder why I think of death all the time…) 

Sheryl Barker
Finally, to balance out the “death” song, I’m also including a link to “Wish You Well” – a song by Kate Herzig that makes me think of my two dear colleagues who passed away in recent years – Sheryl Barker and Eugene Muscat.  Sheryl and Eugene – wherever your spirits live on, I wish you well – you both touched my life in so many positive ways.  

Enjoy – and thank you for reading!

6.24 Death And All Of His Friends
Eugene Muscat

Derek: The human life is made up of choices.  Yes or no.  In or out.  Up or down.  And then there are the choices that matter.  Love or hate.  To be a hero or to be a coward.  To fight or to give in.  To live.  Or die.  Live or die.  That's the important choice. And it's not always in our hands.

Derek: Yes or no.  In or out.  Up or down.  Live or die.  Hero or coward.  Fight or give in.  I'll say it again to make sure you hear me.  The human life is made up of choices.  Live or die.  That's the important choice.  And it's not always in our hands.

Snow Patrol - "Somewhere, a Clock Is Ticking"


Kate Herzig - Wish You Well

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