death. week 1.
city. new york city
It’s a funny thing to set down a stack of books about death at the check-out counter. Watching as the cashier scans the titles and throws a quick glance.
I try to keep it casual. Ask her about her day. Don’t look suspicious.
I feel shy. I feel shame.
I probably shouldn’t have included Durkheim’s tome on Suicide. Definitely should’ve left that one for Amazon.
-- “Would you like a bag?”
I remember feeling quite similar at the start of my ‘love project’ last year. I had gone to the same bookstore, made a beeline for the information desk, and proudly asked for the section on love.
“There’s no love section,” the woman scowled, as if that was a ludicrous suggestion. “You’ll have to search for your books one by one.”
Turns out that that method wasn’t too fruitful either.
A whole room devoted to the intersectionality of Marketing and Mosquitos, and only a dozen or so books on love haphazardly sprinkled across philosophy, psychology, and religion.
[Feels a bit like my life, tbh. Haphazardly sprinkled across philosophy, psychology, and religion.]
In any case, this time around I didn’t make the same mistake. This time I politely asked for the Sociology section. Now that’s a perfectly respectable discipline. I can tell by the number of syllables it has (five).
After that, I made my way carefully through the section on Medicine and Healthcare. And so on.
And yet, there was no escaping the cashier’s eyes, as she gazed down on me from upon her platform, hesitating for just a fraction of a second.
-- “Would you like a bag?”
-- “Yes, please!”
She prints out my receipt, and motions me toward the open door.
I’ve only just begun my study of death, but I’ve already been struck by the surprising ways in which love seems to reappear.
The first book I’ve been reading is called The Five Invitations (by Frank Ostaseski) which begins with the following quote from Rilke:
Love and death are the great gifts that are given to us; mostly, they are passed on unopened.
I have no idea what he means, but it makes me think twice about why I chose love and death as my first two projects. I had thought it was a coincidence, but perhaps there is an unconscious association between the two.
During my experiences with love, I had learned that many of the things I’ve been chasing in the name of love were not at all loving. In fact they were rooted in fear, guilt, and desire. In a very real way, I have had to (and continue to) let go of love in order to (re)find it.
This is not a cliche. I mean this very sincerely and literally. As literally as I can mean anything.
The first time I had sex, it was with a girl that I cared for deeply and who felt the same way for me. And yet, after she had fallen asleep in my arms, I stayed awake for hours, and finally broke down crying. I felt that I had come as close as I could to another human being, and was still left completely alone. I understood, for the first time, that intimacy, while wonderful, is insufficient. I intuitively knew then what I am only discovering now; love, true love, cannot come from outside. I must give myself permission to love myself. I must give myself permission to drink deeply from that bottomless fountain of care and affection that I had unknowingly reserved for others.
I cannot describe how blessed I feel to have been given unconditional and unearned love by my parents, my friends, and my partners. And yet, all of this is simply a prelude, a preparation, for me to be able to one day give myself that same love.
I believe that this will be my life’s holiest work. Learning and relearning how to love myself. Learning and relearning how to perform love.
Similarly, it seems to me that in fearing death, I had created something far worse than death. Just like my desire for love had led me to disregard myself, my fear of death has led me to ignore my life.
Investigate death, my thinking goes, and maybe you’ll discover a thing or two about life.
There’s something relieving about death. Sometimes when I’m helping a friend make a difficult decision I’ll take a moment to remind them that while these decision feel weighty (and in some sense is it), the truth is that no matter what they choose, it’ll always turn out the same. At the end, you die.
The story already has its ending. The only question is how you prefer to get there.
Or, as Frank Ostaseski puts it, “None of us get out of here alive.”
Here’s what is currently on my mind:
In what ways do love and death interact?
Are they opposed to each other? Do they perhaps rely on each other? (Some philosophers claim that we are only capable of appreciating things that we may one day lose.)
The first ‘invitation’ in Frank’s book is Don’t Wait. That is, don’t wait until the last moment to prepare for death. Forgive your loved ones today. Discover the hope that lurks within despair today. Learn to appreciate the impermanence of all things today.
I’d like to take Frank up on his invitation and spend some time in the coming days preparing for death.
Last night and this morning I sent some loving messages to some people in my life. Reminding them that I care about them and that I wish the best for them.
I made plans to spend time with some of my siblings over the next several days.
I made plans to go to Boston next weekend to visit a friend I rarely get to see anymore. We had been planning to hang out for a long time now, but things kept ‘getting in the way’. But I’m dying, and I don’t want to waste any more time.
At the same time, I spent some time today forgiving myself. Forgiving myself for not doing all the things I dreamed of. For not being the hero of my own story. For not accomplishing all of the goals I set and reset for myself. For not trusting myself and my intuitions. For not really giving myself a chance. But mostly, I tried to forgive myself for not always forgiving myself.
It’s been a while since I last wrote, and I think I’ve just about reached my limits. Let’s leave it there and see what tomorrow brings.
It’s Sunday today, but it’s snowing softly so I got out of bed early and went out for a walk.
I wanted to visit a nearby cemetery, the First Shearith Israel Graveyard, which if the plaque is to be believed, served NY’s Jewish community from 1656 - 1833. Positively ancient by American standards.
Sadly, albeit unsurprisingly, the cemetery was closed, so I just kept on walking down to the East River.
On the facade of a building facing the river, I spotted a series of large posters with the following text:
I START THE DAY HIGH
AND IT ENDS SO LOW.
LET’S STEP CAREFULLY INTO
THE DARK. ONCE WE’RE
IN I’LL REMEMBER MY WAY
IT’S WHY I’VE ARRIVED.
YOUR SEX GOD.
HERE TO TAKE YOU
WHERE YOU NEED TO
GO. TO WHERE THE DARK
OPEN UP YOUR HEART LIKE
THE GATES OF HELL.
I GUESS THIS IS THE END.
The mapping of consciousness onto space (high/low) and color (darkness) interested me. The poster was an ad for a new album by mitski, so I put on some headphones, turned on her music, and considered my own ‘deathly associations’. Here’s what came to me:
Death = dark, empty, cold, trash, sick, silent, frozen, winter, night, solid, still, rotten, old, frail, past, lost, sad, mad, rage, bubble, wilt, brown, black, end, finished, hard, horror, white, smoke, ash, fossil, release, bliss, sweet, light, heaven, hell, shriek, devil, Satan, god, angel, soul, tomb, memory, dirt, filth, disgust, suffer, sorrow, tears, hollow, nothing, cavity, space, ancestor, history, beginning, source, energy, essence.
I was surprised by how many opposites appeared. White and Black. Shriek and Silent. Sweet and Disgust. Horror and Bliss.
I suppose that I don’t see death as a one-sided phenomenon, but more like a form of excess or extremity. Death doesn’t just come after life, it surrounds life from all sides. Death occurs outside of life; whether that be before, after, beneath, or above it.
Death supports life, much like planet earth is suspended in some sort of infinite emptiness.
As I was laying in bed this morning scrolling through Facebook, I came across the following post:
Sartre contends that human existence is a conundrum whereby each of us exists, for as long as we live, within an overall condition of nothingness (no thing-ness). Yet simultaneously, within our being (in the physical world), we are constrained to make continuous, conscious choices. It is this dichotomy that causes anguish.
In paying attention to death, I’d like to pay special attention to the empty things. The objects, places, and experiences that contain a certain nothingness or absence. The moment just before or after an event. The hollowness within an object. All that is hidden, missed, or forgotten. The failed attempts and aborted projects.
I’d also like to shift my attention from the future, back toward the past. I believe that in contrast with love (which invites us into the future), death guides us back toward the past, back toward the beginning. Toward birth.
I know these are simply intentions, and may amount to nothing much. But I’m only just beginning to notice the empty, dark, silent side of things, and I hope this will help me orient myself.
Music is the space between the notes.
- Claude Debussy