Friday, October 26, 2007

Fragility, Ephemerality, and the Autumnal

Fish Lake, Illinois

Of course it's a cliché to start thinking about death in autumn. Death always happens, in contrived literature, in melodrama, as a shock as a surprise. It comes out of nowhere, so of course it must come in spring. Melodrama, unlike tragedy, is contrived. Tragedy is inevitable; it can't be avoided.

A little over a week ago, my email software went belly up, forcing me out of contact for four days. Eventually, I completely ripped out and did a clean, fresh install. I lost some emails in the interim, but I restored my email connection. But the experience made me think about fragility.

How fragile all this is. It takes so little to disrupt a life, to destroy it, to kill it. We are very fragile, and the one experience we will all eventually share, whether we wish to or no, is dying.

Do you know where your spiritual life preserver is?

The ephemeral nature of life is both it's horror and its joy. It is a constant reminder of mortality. Every ten years, all the matter in your body has replaced itself. Your bones are completely new. They are also weaker, after the telemeres at the ends of your alleles start to wear away: replicative failure, the planned obsolesence of the body's ability to replicate itself.

The human body is not a thing or substance, given, but a continuous creation. The human body is an energy system which is never a complete structure; never static; is in perpetual inner self-construction and self-destruction; we destroy in order to make it new. —Norman O. Brown

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. —Mohandas K. Gandhi

A few days after that, my computer died of mechanical failure. I was in the midst of completing one of those freelance graphic design jobs that had seemed simple at first, but then mushrooms into a monster that eats up all your free time. So, I had been putting off migrating my data and software into my new laptop. Now I had no choice. Fortunately, it was a fairly easy migration, although I'm still shaking out some minor glitches.

But it makes you realize how easily and quickly things fall apart. Your expectations and assumptions about life never take this into account. You never see it coming. You are bound by the assumptions that allow you to take life for granted—until it gets disrupted, and you can no longer be contentedly, willfully blind to the stark truth that rules our entropic universe: Everything changes. Everything dies.

I can never go back to that simple, simplistic worldview. I have become too aware of the fragility of it all. Anyone who has been near death will tell you this; as will anyone who has survived a great loss, is grieving, and trying to move on. You're not the same person that you used to be; and the new person isn't fully formed yet, so you don't yet know who you are, or who you are to become. It's all unclear. This is a very vulnerable time. It's ripe with possibilities—but you can't escapte the constant awareness of how easily it can all crumble. You move slowly and carefully, if you are wise—and recklessly if you are not. You take care not to bump up against the furniture, even if it means re-learning where everything is in the room.

Still, I don't believe in apocalypse. I believe in apokatastasis. There is nothing that cannot be redeemed. Every time we fight back against entropy, we make the universe live a little bit longer. We slow down it's inevitable death. As fragile and vulnerable as we are, we still have the power to spend ourselves in the cause of life, rather than death.

There's an old samurai saying that goes: When you know you are going to die, you can do anything. That's a Warrior awareness, a warrior's enlightened attitude: when you know you won't survive the game, you can do anything. That is what true freedom is.

I think that if every person were at birth made to understand that life was temporary, and we all are going to die, how much more we would cherish and value the life we have. There is nothing worse than having died inside, years before your body stops breathing and walking around. Someone ought to tell us, when we are born, that we are already dying; then we might learn to live life to the utmost, every day we are still alive.

The truth of the warrior's awareness of death is simply stated: If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve. Letting go is a continuous, daily practice. The body's instinct is always to try to cling, at all costs, to its own existence. My father's body took three days' time between when he left it, and when it stopped breathing; my family's entire purpose during those three days was to hold vigil, and wait. Then the body finally let go. But the person who had been wearing that body had already chosen to move on, and there had been no fear left in him. He was ready. He achieved a good death. Still, death ends a life, not a relationship. I'm still here—for now.

As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death. —Leonardo da Vinci

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. —Mark Twain

A dying man needs to die, as a sleepy man needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong, as well as useless, to resist. —Stewart Alsop

So I look out at the leaves on the trees yellowing, turning to red and brown, and being torn loose by the October winds to eventually lie on the grass, and return to the soil which fed the tree that grew these leaves. A perfect cycle of return. Trees feed their own roots by letting the leaves fall on the ground around them, and decompose into the nutrient humus that the roots will later take up again. The color of the sky in October in the upper Midwest is like no other color: it is the most deep and sublime and clear cyan or blue imaginable. It is the color of lightning, and of enlightenment. On a clear day, the yellow leaves against that blue sky vibrate, too impossible to believe.

Yet the leaves are most beautiful just as they are dying. The cherry blossoms are beautiful because they will not last, but will fade quickly into nothingness. The crabapples are pink and white, glorious for a week at most; eventually the fruit will come, but the flower has to die to make the fruit.

Someday I'll be a weather-beaten skull
resting on a grass pillow,
serenaded by a stray bird or two.
Kings and commoners end up the same,
so more enduring than last night's dream.


I look out at the deer herd that wanders through our woods here. There are too many of them. They will either die from hunger brought on by overpopulations (humans have killed off their natural predators), or by wasting disease, or by misadventure.

"Death by misadventure" is a phrase medical examiners use in their reports when someone dies by reckless stupidity, accident, or just plain being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Only 15 percent of those who die, die suddenly, without warning—but the other 85 percent fear that death worse than any other.

So, these deer will die. This spring, there were twin fawns in the yard, dappled coats, long thin legs, and playing with each other, running and chasing. There are no coyotes in my woods to kill them. But this year there was the river in flood, and there are always cars along the busy roads in this area.

Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life. —John Muir

I shall tell you a great secret, my friend. Do not wait for the last judgement; it takes place every day. —Albert Camus

There is no big apocalypse, only an endless succession of little ones. —Neil Gaiman

The end of my world is not the end of yours, until yours too comes to its end. Every time an elder of the tribe dies, a lifetime of experience disappears from the collective consciousness. It's all lost. Yet nothing is lost, that can't be regained. There is nothing that cannot be redeemed. Not one soul shall be lost: not one. These are the truths of apokatastasis.

I doubt the deer know or care, or the turning leaves. But I do, and maybe that's enough.

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Blogger runnerfrog said...


12:09 PM  
Blogger Neil said...

Gorgeous, Art.

11:20 AM  

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