death. week 18.
I sat down at seat 19F on flight 381 from London to Belgrade. A window seat.
I was in London attending a cybersecurity conference and I’m stopping off in Belgrade on my way to Nuremberg to meet Eva and Veit. We’ll stay there for a day (to visit the Christmas market) before heading down to Munich for a few days.
It’s my birthday in two days. I’m turning 30.
I’ve been feeling terrified for months, but now, two days out, I’ve grown rather calm.
At this point, it’s inevitable.
Just before takeoff, a young Serbian woman and her child (maybe a year or two old) got on the plane (they were the last to board) and were seated beside me.
No, not beside me. With me. The three of us now fill a three-seat row.
I start to get up and move back an aisle. The plane is rather empty, and anyways, this wasn’t even my assigned seat.
But I pause.
It’s not often that I get to fly with my family. I'd like to imagine that the woman in the aisle seat is my wife, and the toddler between us our child.
At the thought of this, warmth immediately flushes through my chest. Tears moisten my eyes.
I begin to imagine what we’ve been doing together in London. I wonder what our home looks like in Belgrade.
Our daughter is adorable. Her tiny purple shoes barely reach the front of the seat. Her tiny pink coat sits comfortably beneath the chair in front of her.
I hope she lives a happy life. I hope she follows her heart. I hope she has many loves, who care for and protect her.
I won’t be here forever, after all. Our flight is barely 3 hours long.
I glance out the window. We’re approaching 5000 feet. London spreads herself out beneath us.
Just a few days ago, Nastya and I decided to name our company Levitate. Only now do I understand why.
We glide through the air, so far above the cold hard brown earth that’s swallowed up everything that’s ever lived. The cold hard brown earth which will one day swallow my parents, my friends, my siblings. The cold hard brown earth which will one day swallow me.
But for now, we levitate.
I grin. A rainbow flashes against the clouds. I look back over at ‘my family’.
It’s such a beautiful afternoon.
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come.
- Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Not long before landing, and just after the pilot illuminated the fasten seatbelt sigh, our sweet child pooped in her pants. I mean, it was a really bad one. I’d forgotten just how bad poop can smell.
And that, amidst the sweet stink of filthy diarrhea, is how we spent our last 30 minutes together as a family.
December 15, 4:00pm, Acropolis
Drove down to Athens today to visit Victor’s mother.
She’s an artist. Her home is filled with her work. We strolled through Lofos Filopappou together.
She pointed out various sites along the craggy hills. It was peaceful. Victor seemed happy.
After stopping for coffee, I left them and carried on to the Acropolis alone.
Once there, I sat down on a stone wall, and searched for words to describe Athena’s temple, but was left speechless. Suddenly, words seemed too small.
I feel as though I am sitting in the presence of a mother I never knew. I look around and see families, students, women. We’ve all been drawn back home, back to our mother.
I listen to Leonard Cohen on my iphone. He lived in Athens (or at least visited often), and I keep searching for him here.
My eyes dart from the marble gods to the human gods. From the temple to the people. I can’t help but think that this is the whole point. Greek Goddesses become Greek goddesses.
Gods are easy to worship. How does one learn to worship people?
Humans are easy to worship. How does one learn to worship gods?
But Athena’s Temple has crumbled. Her city lays in ruins.
She must have been so beautiful. Even now, couples all around me begin to kiss.
There seems to be a contradiction between worship and intimacy.
I’ve always been afraid to touch holy things. I’m afraid to touch holy people. Like life itself, I am both attracted to and repelled by holiness. I’m held, frozen.
At their very center, belief and disbelief are one and the same. Only a heretic is capable of recognizing god. Only an empty glass can be filled.
The Acropolis lives in ruins. The gods have come to life.
I used to think that paying for a woman was an act of charity. I now understand that it is an act of sacrifice.
The Greeks invented the soul. In other words, they invented the body.
I order a beer. It’s called Mythos.
They say that Socrates corrupted the youth. But really it was youth that corrupted Socrates.
Socrates believed in youth, and therefore he could accept anything, even death, even life.
How silly must his accusers have been to think that death was a punishment. Couldn’t they see that it’s actually the greatest gift? Couldn’t they see that, for a philosopher, a good and noble death is the very best thing a man can hope for?
The Jews saw this quite clearly. “All of this world is like a hallway leading to a palace. Prepare yourself well in the hallway so that you might arrive safely in the palace.”
Some have to work for decades to attain a good death. Socrates was gifted it in a single day.
All animals are gifted life. Only humans are gifted death.
That is to say, only humans are gifted life.
Tucked under Hotel Metropolitan in central Athens sits an ancient church. Saint Dynamos, it’s called. Saint Power.
The locals say that no such saint ever existed, rather it’s a code name for Zeus. Athenians have come here for thousands of years to worship Zeus, and now they do so under the guise of a Christian church.
Same god, different name.
I sit at the entrance and watch small groups file in to pay their respects. Rich and poor, young and old, happy and sad. Everyone seems to rely on Saint Power.
Last night, I asked Victor what the word ‘myth’ means to him. I told him that in English, a myth is a lie. An untruth. “That’s not true, it’s just a myth.”
Victor responded that in Greece, myths are greater than truths. They transcend truth. “That man is no mortal. He's a myth.”
Stories replace stories replace stories.
December 18, somewhere over Spain
I sat with Victor’s mother last night talking for hours. She in broken English, I in careful words. It wasn’t easy, but still, we spoke.
Mary is an artist. So naturally we spoke a lot about art. But also about life. And Greece. And finally, about death.
Mary told me that she doesn’t know why we are so afraid of death. Why it hurts so much. But when her father, mother, and ex husband all died in a single year, all she felt was ματαιοδοξία (mataiodoxia). She couldn’t think of the word in English so we used Google Translate. ματαιοδοξία means vanity.
Mary sighed, “Everything felt vanity. It’s true. Everything is vanity. But it’s too much. Everything, only vanity. Only ματαιοδοξία. It’s too much.”
I told her that since I was young, I’d always had a sense that the thing I was searching for in life was intimacy (not that I know what that word even means). She nodded enthusiastically.
And still it had never occurred to me, in almost a year spent working on death, that the reason that death is so brutal, so devastating, is because it’s the very opposite of intimacy.
On the flight home I finish the last few chapters of Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking.
“Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”
She quotes Aries’s Western Attitudes Toward Death: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”
An excerpt from Freud Mourning and Melancholy reads: “It is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through a medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis. Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hyper-cathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it. It is remarkable that this painful unpleasure is taken as a matter of course by us. The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.”
Of course, melancholia (depression) is not the same as mourning. With melancholia, all does not go well. Freud presumes that instead of allowing the lost object to disappear, the melancholic feels as though, in losing the object, they have also lost a part of themself. “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.”
I consider briefly whether my own melancholia is explainable via the loss of my brother at such an early age (before my ego had firmly established its boundaries).
Mary and I also spoke about relationships (she’d been together with her ex for 30 some years): “The main thing is to never lose yourself. After 30 years in a relationship, I no longer remember who I am. I search and search. I know I’m there somewhere, but so far I stay lost.”
Thoughts on Didion's Year of Magical Thinking
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
So begins Didion’s meditation on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking.
Let's try a meditation. Take a moment to quiet your mind and shift your focus from your thoughts and environment to ‘the moment’ itself. From the contents to the container.
Consider this moment. Notice that it is there, acknowledge its existence. Now, consider how the first moment of consciousness must have felt. The transition from nothing to everything. From death to life. We wake up each morning, but we have already grown used to our world, it’s no longer a surprise. Imagine waking up for the very first time. Can you feel the roar of existence?
I glimpse it at times. in the midst of a psychedelic trip, intimate exchange, or orgasmic peak. But I can also taste it during the more ordinary moments. The quiet moments. Sitting on the bench in the park, catching the setting sun, or listening to the piano.
I'm there and then suddenly I'm not. The floodgates open. I burst out in tears.
I’ve begun to cry more, as I age. Only these are different tears, delicate tears. The softest tears in the world.
Life changes in the instant. Each instant. Each moment as breathtaking, as electric, as fiery as any other. But distraction finds a way back in. Well, I suppose that's the way it's meant to be. How else am I to live? In a very real sense, life consists of not much more than a distraction from Didion’s instant. The mind turns anxiously away from itself. A retreat before the penetrating roar of infinite presence.
But death returns us to life. And so it goes.
“Throughout the writings of the patriarchs and the prophets, we again and again and again return to a scene of wounding. It is a scene that carries emphatic assurance about the "realness" of God, but one that (for the participants inside) contains nothing that makes his "realness" visible except the wounded human body.”
- The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry
In Judaism, god is not allowed to be depicted. He cannot be visualized or materialized in any way. His only “sign”: the human wound.
9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.
In preparation for the end of my year of death, I’ve begun to compose a list of ‘lessons’ that I’ve learned.
Lessons about death
Death is utterly mysterious. The ultimate unknown. Moreover, it points back to the ultimate unknown that is all of life. I find this terrifying. But I can’t look away.
The fragility of life really does instill a sense of preciousness and delicateness.
There is nothing to be discovered in the darkness. It’s just… dark. However, the darkness does provide spaced for the “real” to be made tangible. (Perhaps the darkness and the real are the very same thing.)
There is a cyclical nature to life. To better handle death, it’s crucial to not see “death” as a discrete object but rather notice the various configurations of life. Death is never an absence. Embrace the new presence. Welcome it in. Grow fond of it. And then let that go too.
My own death is not a loss, but a return. Grow comfortable with letting go of my self for the other. Practice Eroticism.
Take one day a week to die. Sabbath.
When faced with a decision (big or small) consider the moment of death. Live in such a way so as to minimize regrets. Prepare, constantly and fervently, for death. My own, as well as those whom I love.
To be at peace with death means to be at peace with life. Real life. Life, as it exists in and through the body. Therefore, to be at peace with death is to be at peace with one’s body.
But finally, and most importantly, the goal of this year of exploration (like each year before it) was never to discover new ideas or lessons. Just as philosophy must begin in wonder, and never in doubt, it must never end in knowledge, but in appreciation.
I may not know anything about life, about love, about death and dying, and I may have no hope of ever learning much at all, but I see no better way to spend my time alive than to develop just a bit more appreciation for the the inexhaustible riches with which I have been gifted.