:: WHY WE BE ::

Boo to false, self-imposed limits, we say. These champion oracles want to live enthusiastically. Follow our trip through projects that challenge, frustrate, and/or scare us. In the end (which is really the middle) we want to live like big bright free and authentically awesome people.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Little Death Bird

Have you heard the one about the girl who went to a therapist to talk about difficult relationships and ended up trying to make friends with her own death? It's kind of a funny story...

It's true, I am living in fear of the most inevitable thing in life - death. I'll be having a totally ordinary or even exceptionally pleasant moment, and suddenly a picture of my death by any number of different accidents, illnesses or just plain old age will rise unbidden to the top of my mind, and a low grade panic sets in.

A couple of years ago, there was a terrible and tragic accident in downtown San Francisco. A man was on Mission Street, at a corner where there also happened to be a bus stop. He was trying to hail a cab, and stepped off the curb behind a bus that had stopped to unload passengers. Another bus was coming toward the stop, ostensibly slowing down to a halt. Somehow the driver of that second bus got confused, and accelerated instead of braking. The second bus slammed into the first bus, and the man hailing the taxi was crushed between them, dying instantly.

A co-worker of mine was close friends with the man who was crushed between the buses. Had, in fact, recently been best man at his wedding. Something inside me broke a little listening to my co-worker describe the agonizing minutiae that comes along with a sudden death. No one knew the password to the dead man's Blackberry, or his computer at work. No one had his bank account number. I have had relatives and friends who have passed away, and I didn't even know this man, but for some reason hearing about his death made the reality of my own mortality come rushing in like a muddy river.

One of the most frustrating things about this is that just a few short years ago, I was practically fearless. For instance, in 2007 I took a bus ride in India. In the middle of a raging monsoon thunderstorm, the bus ascended the foothills of the Himalayas, surfing the sides of sheer cliffs on a one lane road with blind intersections at every curve. Lightning was streaking through the air around us and little pieces of the road were washing away. On that bus ride, I didn't once think that anything disastrous would happen to me. Fast forward to 2011, where a drive across town on a sunny day can leave my palms sweaty, as I imagine all the different ways I might perish behind the wheel.

It occurred to me that this might be something to bring up with my therapist. We had a chat about the subject, and I learned some important things.

1. It's normal to fear death, most people do, and sometimes it is literally like flipping a switch. We get older, and one day we wake up and our mortality is sitting on the edge of the bed, handing us a cup of coffee, asking, "What are we going to do today?"

2. The more attached you are to things in your life, the harder the idea of your death is going to be. (This is something wise folk [like, say, The Buddha for example] have been saying for thousands of years. I know they are all waiting for validation from a slightly neurotic, wholly unenlightened woman in Northern California, and so I say unto them - you guys were totally right!)

3. The more comfortably aware you are of your death, the happier and richer your life will be. My therapist recalled a passage from a book by Carlos Castaneda, where a shaman advises him that Death, sitting on his left shoulder, is his most powerful teacher. This reminded me of a story in the wonderful novel Population 485 by Michael Perry, where he talks about going deep into the woods every now and then, lying down on the ground, and getting completely still. He imagines his heart stopping and his body slowly fading into the very earth that he reclines upon. It's his way of nodding "howdy" at Death, and acknowledging that soon enough the two of them will be shooting the shit together in eternity. I think this is marvelous and heroic, and I really want to be like that. Which brings us to another lesson….

4. You can't force yourself to feel better about death, or control your thoughts around it. There isn't a quick fix, it's a process of healing and practicing new perspectives. My therapist likened it to holding a little bird in your palm. You can't squeeze it or hold onto it too hard, because it will freak out and fly away. You have to let it sit there, gently, and leave it be. That is how the truth about ourselves comes to us - a little bird sitting quietly in an open palm.

I like the idea of this gentle little bird so much that I think I am going to picture my death that way. A soft, downy thing, solid but also ethereal, perched on my shoulder, singing its song in my ear, reminding me how beautiful and rich and amazing it is to be alive.

So this is my latest big bad goal. Heal, change my perspective, let the truth flow and listen to the song of my little death bird. Hopefully, as time wears on, I will deliver myself from the invasive thoughts, the angst, and the low grade panic. Perhaps some day soon my mortality and I can sit down and enjoy that cup of coffee together as friends.


John said...

I had my first mortality moment on a bus riding to Oklahoma with the Marines. Totally flipped like a switch and I realized that one day I would be no more. That was fifteen years ago and I still struggle with mortality moments. Especially as a medic, I have seen much death, and fought it a time or three. Ultimately death wins though, and sometimes that's not a bad thing. My wish (for everyone really) is that my life is full enough and LIVED enough that when death comes for me, I'm all worn out and tired enough to say "OK, let's go." Good luck!

amy said...

I so get you on this, Angie. I so get you! In fact, the other morning I was lying in bed and realized that age 40 is mere months away for me. I realize there are people in the world who hear me go, "I'm almost 40!" and they go, "40?! 40!? Stop complaining, you're just a baby." But no, no. 40's half-way to 80, and 80 is the average American woman life expectancy.

Which is what I was thinking about the other morning lying in bed: Man! I'm almost 40! Which is half-way to 80. How the heck did I end up here? How did I get to be almost 40?! And another 40 years, knock on wood, I'm going to saying the same thing, except about 80."

And then it hit me: why, when I'm 80, I'll have even LESS years left. At least now, I've got another good 40. But at 80, I'll only have 10, 20 if I'm lucky. And how will I feel about THAT, at age 80? And also will the experience of dying being weird? And will the After Life (please, PLEASE let there be an After Life) have ice cream and beaches? I will really miss not eating ice cream and getting to visit the ocean once in awhile.

And also, I'm very particular about how I'll die--like, I'd rather not know it's coming. My dad had a good death--laid down for a nap, never woke up. He didn't get to say good-bye either, and neither did I, which I'd hate for my loved ones. But I hate good-byes. And also I'm so so bad at letting go (I'm the anti-Buddha) of people and things I love. And also: I don't want to die violently. And my 2 worst fears are dying in a fiery plane crash or being tortured by a serial killer, which combine both violent death + knowing it's coming.

I have more to say about this, but we'll be here all night talking death, making ourselves more neurotic. (I apologize if I've just made you more neurotic.)

....if I lived in CA, I'd be asking for your therapist's number, by the way. :-p

Steph said...

It's a beautiful metaphor for life and death, this little death bird, and how we can deal with both. Hanging onto ANYTHING too tightly will cause a freak out or the death of it. It's simple and clear this way. Yes. I love it.

I have to say that #2 resonates with me so deeply, especially right now. I have many friends who lost absolutely everything in the tornado last month. It's both interesting and heart-breaking to watch them deal with the aftermath. One friend in particular went back to her home (She was at the mall when the storm obliterated her home, thank GOD.) only ONE time, shortly after the storm. She recovered her favorite mug, scarf, lamp, and her diplomas. To my knowledge, she hasn't gone through another inch of what's left. She got what was important to her and knows she's lucky to be alive. She's a people person, and her people were okay, and that's all that mattered. I know other people who are still scavenging for any and ALL possible items that could possibly be salvaged. Not that these people aren't people people. The health & well being of their families matters to them, certainly. I do not mean to judge anyone, either way. I can't judge. I have NO idea how I'd feel if I were in their shoes. I mean, I'd love to think I'd be like my people person friend, but I really can't imagine. It's about attachments, just as you mentioned in #2. I think it goes beyond what you learned, though. The more attached you are to things in your life, the harder the idea of your death is going to be. Yes. The more attached you are to things in your life, the harder LIFE is, too, I think. Huh.
I wish you all the best in your latest goal... healing, healthy perspective, truth, hearing clearly the song of your little death bird... Yes. Yes, indeed. Go get it, girl.