Death And The Narratives We Tell, Part II

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It’s funny how you can write something with one intent and it can be interpreted different ways, depending on the viewer’s filter.  My last post was not meant to be depressing or dark.  Despite how it may have appeared, I don’t actually spend too much time reliving sad memories–but reflecting on my past does shape how I carry myself in the present.

And the thing is, I do still think a lot about death, but in a totally different way.  I think about it as the end bracket to my story, and what to I want to put in there before it shows up?  Because the tomorrows do run out, and that’s not a bad thing or a good thing–it just is.  That’s what I think about.

When my grandmother died, it was a really good death.  A good death, because there was nothing left unsaid, nothing I regret about our relationship.  I got the memories of her house and sitting out on the back porch as the sun was setting, watching the bats fly around the giant tree in her backyard to the barn next door.  Memories so ingrained that they still show up in my dreams.  My ten-year-old self talking to her grandma-self, and it didn’t matter that there were 70 years between us.  The wheel of time shifts, and it is hard to say goodbye.  It’s hard accepting that nothing ever stays the same.  But here is my now, where I’m watching Shark Tank with Rowan on Friday nights, my 40-year self talking to her 10-year-old self, joking and discussing the businesses we would invest in.  This connection is just as wonderful, the love just as deep, even if the circumstances and characters change.

Our whole existence is tenuous.  Not just even that there are accidents and cancer and you know, always the minute chance that a giant asteroid will crash into earth.  It’s that the only thing that makes you you is the continuity of your perceived experiences, and even memories are less like a video recording and more like a play.  When you’re five, there aren’t many memories to even fall back upon, but as you acquire more data points of your life, you can’t possibly keep all of the relevant ones in your head at any one time.  I wonder if that’s why time seems to go faster the older you get, because you have to sift through more information and can only pay attention to so much.  And then add on that memories, like a play, change a bit in every reactment, so choosing which ones to even revisit changes you.  Then add on how each one supports your story – because it is not your brain or your body or even your atoms that make you the human you are, it is the wandering thread in the unknown tapestry that ties those experiences into you, into me.

And that’s why I am conscious of death, and it doesn’t fill me with fear or avoidance or make me unhappy.  I figure that when the time comes, it will be an experience you simply surrender to, like birth, because you have no control.  In the meantime, I have some big goals and small goals.  Really living each day like there’s no tomorrow, living only on whims is not sustainable–but big future plans have to be in balance with the here and now.

So for my thread, I want more of this.  More of having people over for dinner, talking late into the night.  More of enjoying early mornings, making tea, reading with a purring cat.  More of wrestling with my kids and doing food experiments.  More of lovemaking.  😉 More of keeping connections to old friends and always being open to the new.  More of new places, new friends, new tastes. More of enjoying lazy weekends with friends I’ve had for years.  More of making small steps to big dreams.  More of love and light, wherever I am.

Death And The Narratives We Tell

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I think a lot about death.  It’s one of my favorite topics, though one I don’t necessarily share frequently as it weirds people out.  I think it’s just because once you exist, it’s difficult to imagine not existing.  The idea does not scare me – though I have to admit, if someone stuck a gun in my face, I’m sure I would be terrified.  Something about the immediacy would be frightening.  But as far as the philosophical idea of non-existence goes, I think I have made my peace with it.  After all, I’ve been thinking about it since I was 11.

When I was a kid, I was very unhappy.  Sometime people underestimate the emotions a child could have, underestimate the pain someone who is not an adult could feel. From a young age, I always felt like a skinned knee, raw and vulnerable, the meat of my flesh exposed.  Always on the edge of tears, always trying to keep my feelings under control and not being able to.  I felt out of place, because just existing seemed so effortless for other kids.

Because make no mistake, I was weird.  Some days I just didn’t wash and didn’t bother to brush my hair, it all seemed so useless.  If people talked to me, I would often start crying uncontrollably, because I couldn’t tell if they were taking a piss at me, or even worse, actually cared.  My worldview had no place for people who cared about me.  All I knew is that there was something deeply flawed, deeply wrong with me.  But I didn’t know what it was.

My life sucked, and so, I made up a story for why it sucked.  It had to do with me, and something horrible about me. Perhaps I was ugly.  Truly and dreadfully.  And once I decided upon that as my hypothesis, my confirmation bias neatly fell into place.  I remembered every cruel remark:

“Are you a witch?  Because you have a really big nose.”

“Why do you follow us?  Don’t you know that nobody wants you around, nobody likes you?”

“Are you a bitch or a dude?  Hey, I’m talking to you.  ARE YOU a bitch or a dude?  Because no one can tell.”

Or my favorite – “Do you see a psychiatrist?  Because however often you go, it’s not often enough.”

I remember being so thankful that I got home before anyone else, so that I could go to my room and cry and clean up before anyone could see.

And that’s how I got to considering suicide at age 11.  I’m told that’s fairly early.  Actually, to me, if the age of reason is 7, it seems fairly late.  Eleven is old enough to see the bullshit in the world.  To think and to feel that it will never get better.  To go through enough isolation and bullying to not want to go through anything more.  The thing I remember most about 5th grade, besides math, was thinking about how I would hang myself outside the school.  There was a bunch of young trees outside, young enough to climb.  It would be easy.

But obviously, I never did, because I am here, writing this blog 30 years later.  It took me a good decade to really get out of the throes of depression.  It took me a long time to learn how to be a friend and to accept friendship.  It was probably one of the most healing lessons I have ever learned.  That I–gawky, big-footed, big-nosed, and with glasses to boot–could actually be someone other people cared about.  In all my imperfections, in all my hangups, the more I reveal my open soul, the more people let me into theirs.

That was the second lesson.  Everyone has suffered, no one gets a monopoly on that.  Some people definitely have a different level of grit – I must admit that I am a little embarrassed that I had no outside trauma to deal with.  My worst obstacle has always been myself. I have heard many stories.  Rape, being molested as a child, cutting, having rocks thrown at them, suicide – I have been a listening witness to many cruelties that were not my personal experience.  And I am grateful to be so trusted.  People know they can tell me anything.

After all, though, you finally get to a point where you let it go.  All of it.  If you’re going to end your life, or if you’re not, you make your peace with that decision.  Then you move on, because the limbo state isn’t sustainable.  Somewhere around 16, I decided that I probably wasn’t going to end it.  I still had fantasies of course; the note, the way I would end it — but it was a daydream of not having to suffer anymore.  It took me another 5-6 years to finally get rid of that fantasy for good and really embrace the fact that I was going to live.

What is funny is that as the years have gone by and I decided to have children, I worry about it more.  Not because I fear death, but because I know my kids love me.  If I died now, they would be fucked up.  Though I have warned them that if I’m 98 and have incurable cancer, I’m probably going to jump out of a plane and “forget” to pull the parachute.  Just so they know.

So the strange thing is–the thing I can’t let go of–is being insignificant or unimportant.  I don’t expect to win a Nobel Prize or anything, but I would very much like to have some good impact in the world.  I don’t know what, however–and I’m in my official 40s now, so the pressure is on.  I remember someone telling me that in the Hindu worldview, you have kids and then as they grow older, you can devote yourself to spiritual pursuits.  Everything in its own good time.  I feel a bit like that.  I enjoy having kids – it’s great fun and awe to experience the world through young eyes – and yet, it’s not everything I want to experience.  I love my kids, but I can’t say that they complete me.  Just like a lover or a friend, I don’t know the trajectory of their lives.  Will it be in parallel to mine?  Will it only intersect and then diverge?  Sometimes the people who have the most influence on us are not the people we’re destined to have Sunday dinners with.

That is, of course, the strangeness of [our] Time.  We remember the past, but know nothing of the future.  But if it doesn’t matter anyway (and I mean that in both the positive and negative sense), then the meaning is in the traveling, the experience of life.  If Death is the equalizer of us all, then enjoying our personal journey, and helping others to enjoy theirs, is all that really matters.  Maybe our stories will last for a generation or two, our DNA longer, but eventually it all fades and disappears into the noise of a billion lives.  Somehow this makes me feel better and not worse–but then again, I always was an iconoclast.

Loving What Is

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I’ve been spending time with a lot of friends lately, and feeling grateful for my life.  My day to day existence is still somewhat surprising to me.  I really enjoy the mornings, seeing the sun come up, waking up the kids if they’re here. There is just a calm happiness about getting up and going to work, I like it. At night, Rowan’s been reading to Nova from my book, “Great Swedish Fairy Tales,” and she’s so good at it, it makes me smile.

We had our friend Peter from Sweden in town recently.  He was here on business, but the ex and I and the kids went and took him out to dinner.  Wow, was I proud of the girls.  We were there for two hours and they handled it well.  He is the kind of guy everyone wants to be friends with, intelligent, kind, and funny.  A good soul all around.  But it was a bit surreal, hanging out with L. and driving back into town together, in the dark over these old country backroads that I haven’t visited in five years.  Divorce is a strange thing when you are still friends with the person you were married to.  But worse, I suppose, if you weren’t.

Then I had to talk with the guy I had been interested in.  We had been sort of dating, and he had the potential to be something more.   The whole package, genuine, smart, very sexy. *sighs*  Damn sexy, to tell the truth.  But you know, you can focus on the experience you want or try to hold onto a specific person with lesser results.  After all, I know I don’t know everything, and I only want someone who wants me back the same way I want them.  I can like someone, but I don’t believe in giving up what I want most for what I want now.  So, either the match was wrong or the timing was off–but the causation is irrelevant.  It just wasn’t a great dating experience, because though I had fun, I never knew if I’d even see him once a week.  Had to let it go, but it’s comforting that the older I get, the more equanimous I get.  I feel pretty okay about all of it.  Actually, I feel grateful that I got to experience my fantasy for a little bit, even if the reality wasn’t what I wanted.  Sort of like a beta ping from the Universe.  “Here’s a partial match for you, what about this?  He’s realllllyyyyyy cute.”  No thanks, Universe, I know what I want.  And I’m willing to say no to things that don’t fulfill me.

Meanwhile, work has been going great.  Makes my brain hurt on a pretty constant basis – I love that.  I love that kind of challenge.  I am nowhere where I want to be, but man, do I want to get there.  Had my review and it was awesome, so that was really nice.  I may not have a Ph.D. in medical physics, but I love trying to make things better for our customers.  I’m also realizing how strong my sense of empathy really is, and how much I love explaining things to people, elucidating concepts.  I love when my brain suddenly understands something new – and then I want to go tell people how cool this new thing is that I learned.  I am in a really good place right now, workwise.

The other thing I’ve been working is my health.  I’ve been doing hot yoga.  Wow, is that ever amazing!  I go and sweat like a pig, then come home and scrub myself clean.  Then I get to sit naked and watch old movies like “Tron” while drinking bourbon.  It’s damn fantastic.  (Okay, okay, I don’t do this if the kids are around)

I printed out a life calendar recently, and it was inspiring.  Something like this, where every year is a row and there are 52 columns.  A week is a square, and I gave myself 98 rows.  I used to think I would live to 100 and die in my sleep (barring accidents), but now I’m guessing that most of my friends will die before me.  I’m probably going to get bored about age 98 and then I’ll just decide to die.  My body usually obeys me.

I posted it in my cubicle and it’s great to see how much time I have left.  I might actually be able to do some good before I die, it makes me happy.  I still don’t know why I’m here, but the more I work at bettering myself, the more I feel like I might have something worthwhile to give back.