Thursday, April 10, 2014

Strategies of Life and Death

The beauty after death of this big horn skull
haunts me.

One of my good friends was just diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.  It started me thinking about strategies.

It seems that more people I know have a permit to carry a concealed weapon or are interested in the process of obtaining one. Many of my friends are stock piling water and/or food for emergencies and there's more and more talk about living off the grid.  We want to get away from the prying eyes of the NSA, the insidious creeping of GMOs into our food supply or the fracking of our water system. Regardless of the actual statistical probabilities, we have internalized the threat of crime, identity theft … assault.

Assault.  We all seem to be living within a bubble of fear of being assaulted by the external forces of nature or man and developing strategies to deal with those assaults. What we don't seem to prepare for as well is the inevitable … death.  

Every single one of us is going to die.  Forty-one percent of us will get cancer of some sort, and almost all of us face the possibility of dying from a dozen different sources:  disease, diabetes, heart attack or stroke, traffic accident, or misjudging the wisdom of running with the bulls in Pamplona.  Something will get us and, one way or another, at some point, we will be dead, our molecules released back into the Universe.

There are a lot of strategies for dealing with death, however most of them tend to deal with the legal and tangible stuff you leave behind, or they're developed for people who have been given a terminal diagnosis and know the trajectory of their life is coming to an endpoint.  The rest of us try pretty hard not to think about death, as if somehow that would stop it from being a fact of life.

It seems to me there's a gap here … every single one of us needs a life strategy that includes death rather than pretending it's something "out there" that may never happen.  Our strategies will vary, however, it seems that some things will be universal.

Build a support system -- don't miss an opportunity to help a friend or loved one and also learn to receive their support.  For most of us, receiving is harder than giving. Learn to rejoice in the expression of love and support that comes from others; let them love you and encourage them to let you care for them. 

My favorite aunt, the source of unconditional love during my entire life, was a giving spirit who took in every hungry or homeless child who came her way.  When she became ill and needed the care of others, it almost broke her spirit.  She needed to be the giving one and could not accept the fact that she was "needy." We tried to tell her it was her turn to be cared for and that she was giving us a gift  to let us help her, but she never could relax and just accept our loving service.

Speak your heart -- do not leave words of love and friendship unspoken, thinking you can always "do it later." Make a list of all the people you love and send them love letters/phone calls/emails/texts.  It doesn't matter what form your words take, just tell them how you feel and that they matter to you. 

At this advanced stage of life, my heart has been broken open by a new love and it is pouring out of me like water through a rusted bucket. I am appalled at how little I've spoken my love for my very dear friends and for those who have nurtured my journey. It breaks my heart to think that if something happened to me tomorrow, they might never know how important they were to me.

Set yourself free -- recycle your stuff and keep it moving … clear out your storage units and cubby holes … sell it on craigslist or ebay, give it away or trash it. You can't take it with you so why let it weigh you down now?

My dad lived in a tiny house with a garage that you could not enter because it was floor to ceiling stuffed. After he died, I hired a firm to help me clean up and they brought in a construction-site sized dumpster and filled it. Do your kids a favor and start getting rid of stuff.  Do yourself a favor and replace all that stuff with light and air and space. If you need something because it contains a memory for you, try taking a picture of it … sometimes that's all you need and memories don't collect dust or leave something behind to squabble over.

Thinking about death and developing a life strategy that includes death is not morbid or negative.  It is actually life affirming.  Knowing that, at some point … which could be later this afternoon … we might be dead, makes us think about what is truly important in our lives.  Life is a gift; however, it's not a gift that we own and treating it as anything other than a short-term loan doesn't make sense.  

We may not know what comes after death but we do know that death will come.  Until it comes, we have this thing called life and we have a certain, limited, time to enjoy it and fill it with all the love it will hold. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep

This morning at meditation, a beautiful poem was read from one of the Wisdom Crone cards.  I was disappointed to see that it was attributed to "author unknown" since I knew I had seen it attributed at some point.

The author is Mary Elizabeth Frye and the story about the poem is almost as good as the poem itself.  It was written in 1932 by a Baltimore woman who had not written poetry before.  Wikipedia tells this story:  

... the plight of a young German Jewish woman, Margaret Schwarzkopf, who was staying with Frye and her husband, inspired the poem. Margaret Schwarzkopf had been concerned about her mother, who was ill in Germany, but she had been warned not to return home because of increasing anti-Semitic unrest. When her mother died, the heartbroken young woman told Frye that she never had the chance to “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear”. Frye found herself composing a piece of verse on a brown paper shopping bag. Later she said that the words “just came to her” and expressed what she felt about life and death.[1]

Frye never published the poem but circulated it among friends and it drifted into popularity and was often read at funerals.  Abigail Van Buren finally established the authorship in 1998.   It looks like the copyright on the crone cards is 2004 so maybe they were developed before the authorship was widely known.

As my childhood hero, Paul Harvey, would say, "And, now you know the rest of the story."  Interesting to find out later in life just how conservative he was … but what a story teller … and voice!

Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.