This is an entry in my day calendar.
I jotted the note, without a thought, when we were setting a tentative date for a Death Café we plan to hold at our church.
Only later, when I returned to the page, did I laugh out loud thinking what someone who didn’t understand the context would make of that note. They’d think, “Boy, is she organized.”
No, I’m not penciling in my imminent demise, just planning an evening for people “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
At a Death Café people eat cake, drink tea and talk about something we need to talk about more. Because, let’s face it, whether it’s written in our calendar or not, it’s coming!
It’s not a grief session or counselling. Just open discussion.
I realized how taboo the subject is when I puzzled over what to call this post.
- A date with death. Love it. But how many people would think, “Oh no! Arlene’s going to die?!”
- Talking about death. Also good, but so many people cringe at the idea of death. (The very ones who could benefit from a Death Café.) They would think, “Ugh,” and delete the e-mail without reading it.
- 10 ways to talk about death. The SEO people are always trying to get me to put numbers in titles. But (a) I don’t know ten ways and, (b) the same group of people would say, “Ugh,” and delete.
I couldn’t find a way to include the word “death” in my title that wouldn’t either give the wrong impression or turn people away. If you’re in Ottawa, Canada on November 6, you could come and eat cake with me. If not, find someone else and make a date with death.
You might end up laughing out loud.
I highly recommend Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. He writes about “contingency sims”–death simulations, really. (Even astronauts find the word “death” taboo.)
[Contingency sims] force us to think through our own demise in granular detail: not only how we’d die, but what would happen afterward to our families, colleagues and the space program itself. … What to do with the corpse?… What kind of help would crewmates need to deal with the trauma?… How should the PR people respond?…
Death sims are not weepy, grief-stricken affairs. They’re all about brass tacks. Although family members aren’t required to participate, Helene [his wife] has joined in several times because she has quickly discovered that taking the time to verbalize what you think you would do in the worst-case scenario quickly reveals whether you’re really prepared or not….
I reviewed my will, made sure my financial affairs and taxes were in order, and did all the other things you’d do if you knew you were going to die. But that didn’t make me feel like I had one foot in the grave. It actually put my mind at ease and reduced my anxiety about what my family’s future would look like if something happened to me. Which meant that when the engines lit up at launch, I was able to focus entirely on the task at hand: arriving alive.”
It was Thanksgiving in Canada yesterday.
I’m grateful for the combination of creative solitude and family celebration I enjoyed over the weekend.
I’m also grateful for past blogs to turn to after I used the creative solitude for other purposes, and the family celebration was way to fun to interrupt to write.
The boy I wrote about in this post from last year has grown up and he no longer follows this practice. I miss it! But no matter. He taught me a timeless lesson during that brief delightful phase of his childhood.
Monday evening is the regular library time for a father and a small boy. Those two are the highlight of my week.
At the time of their visit, I work in the room that houses the book drop. The murmur of their voices and the scraping sound of a step-stool being pulled into position comes to me through the slot. The child’s feet climb up one step on the stool and another as he prepares for his book return ritual.
“Thank you, book. Good-bye,” he says to the first book. He pushes it through the slot. “Bam!” he shouts.
He performs this small ceremony for every book. He returns 10 to 15 books, on average, so his process takes some time. If there are people waiting behind him, he doesn’t adjust his pace; he savours his moment.
I stop whatever I’m doing and savour his moment too. I smile widely.
This child shows me:
- He respects and cherishes books.
- He expresses gratitude.
- He knows how to “be here now.”
- He celebrates each moment with a Bam!
Some lessons for all of us, from a child.
Hundreds of books pass through my hands in any given week in my library job.
Few of them make me stop and look.
The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose has a catchy title for a person like me, though. I imagined myself opening it, reading a few life-changing phrases and sighing, “So that’s what life is all about.”
Alas, I lasted only as far as the mathematical equations:
Taking the particle’s ordinary 3-velocity to be v, so that v = (dx1 / dt, dx2 /dt, dx3 / dt), where t = x0, we get [18.19],[18.20]
p = mv, m = γμ, va = γ(c2, v),
γ = (1 – v2 /c2) – 1/2.
The equation road led me to the reality of a dead end.
Is the universe is only ours to appreciate if we study enough math?
I sure hope not.
I wouldn’t have wanted to see my grandmother’s magical ability with pie crust trapped in a mathematical equation. I don’t believe my friend Etienne’s off-the-charts charisma can be captured that way. Or my love for my children? There’s no equation complex enough.
I thought of The Big Bang Theory episode where the scientific geniuses rhyme off answers to complex scientific questions in the Physics Bowl. Penny sleeps through the event and average viewers like me wonder Who knows that stuff?
After the physics event Penny brings out her own trivia cards. The answers to the popular culture questions would be obvious to most of us, but Leonard says, “Who knows this stuff?”
Same reality, different roads.
I’ll stick to the one with apple pie and no equations.
In The Philosopher’s Kiss, a historical novel about the French philosophers who created the first encyclopedia, author Peter Prange describes an 18th Century Paris shrouded in impenetrable fog. The fog, mixed with the sooty smoke of that period, hung dense and unmoving between the buildings.
With the city sounds muted and their sight blinded, people bumped against each other in open squares or walked up to the door of the wrong house. Coach men felt for curbs with their hands.
In those circumstances the magistrates called on the blind for assistance. The ones who usually passed their days huddled on the stones crying out for alms were paid to guide citizens safely through the city. In those circumstances Paris was a city that only the blind could see.
The passage in Prange’s book turns the old expression “the blind leading the blind” on its head. That phrase, based on a Bible passage: “Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?” (Luke 6:39) portrays the blind as less able, less than others.
In fact, the blind can lead the blinded. In fact they are the best candidates to lead others who have become over-dependent on only one of their senses.
The passage prompted me to wonder, on what senses have I become over-dependent? What am I missing?
What unexpected resource have I been overlooking?
Some days I barely manage to thole the Twitter experience. Other days, it sends wonderful gifts.
Last week, @RobGMacfarlane sent this gift:
Word of the day: “thole” – to endure with fortitude, to cope with suffering or challenge patiently & with dignity (Scots).
This is one of my favourite Scots verbs; quietly, toughly inspiring. If a situation is “tholeable” it is, in the end, with courage & support, survivable. pic.twitter.com/mv3U7x0OPD
— Robert Macfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane) September 5, 2018
Fantastic word, that.
Quietly, toughly inspiring, as he says. The simple act of reading the definition fills my “thole” with a renewed vigour.
Sometimes we feel like this lone twig on a barren tree.
Other days nothing can hold us back, like these robust colourful blossoms.
Lonely twig or robust blossom, I thole, you thole, we all thole together.
In Canada we jokingly say we have only two seasons: winter and construction.
We laugh, but it’s true that nature dictates that we have a time to build and a time to refrain from building.
We’re still in construction season and during my daily cottage walks I passed this sign posted by a new housing development.
This site poses a certain kind of danger. The trees they are clearing could fall a bonk someone on the head, or the large diggers and bulldozers used to dig roots and clear rocks might flatten a heedless pedestrian.
On other sites when builders sledgehammer through walls, someone might step on rusty nails or touch live electrical wires.
Construction, it seems, involves an inherent element of risk.
What about other kinds of construction?
- When I was pregnant—”constructing” babies, so to speak—nausea and fatigue made me, let’s just say, unpleasant to be around. My husband often tiptoed around the danger zone.
- This day after Labour Day many of us begin new studies or projects at work. As we construct our knowledge-base and our careers, we face the dangers of failure or financial losses.
- Building a business is a dangerous proposition. To earn business rewards, an entrepreneur risks investment funds and reputation.
- Artists and writers who build worlds for us to temporarily inhabit all know the danger of rejection, feelings of inadequacy or wasted time.
In this season of construction, are you clearing paths and building despite the danger?