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#80 - death clarifies life
My endless fascination with death.
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There is an instrumental song called Undone by Olafur Arnalds, a relatively known Icelandic composer, that begins with this voiceover:
As we get bigger and bigger, the distance between ourselves and that other outside world gets smaller and smaller.
And this world that we are inside which seems so huge in the beginning, and so infinitely welcoming, has become very uncomfortable.
And we are obliged to be born.
And my father says that birth is so chaotic and violent that he is sure that at the moment of birth, we are all thinking, this is it, this is death, this is the end of my life.
And then we are born, and it’s a surprise because it is just the beginning.
I first heard the song on a friend’s IG stories, which has become an unexpected channel for music discovery and have replayed it many times over the past few weeks, captivated by this quivering voice that sounds as if they are staring straight into the eyes of the abyss.
Unbeknownst to me, this song has become part of my doula team, my elders, in the latest string of personal deaths along with the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and the 10 of Swords. It seems that in a compressed two-week period I’ve been met with endings: the illusion of forever, tentative and idealistic dreams, living chapters, actual jobs and paycheques and of course, Twitter. By Tuesday, when I found out the team that I was working with at TED was laid off, I just laughed. Okay universe, I see you.
My friend S says that I talk about death a lot. It’s true. The clues about who we truly are become fairly obvious when you pay attention to what you talk about, who you gravitate towards, what you read and the colours that mirror your soul. Death is typically an experience that we associate with the end of life. It is often the lived a good life, the taken too soon, the choosing to die, and the senseless violence. But for me, death is the beginning and the most defining thread of my story.
M and I have a running joke every time we leave each other that we have no idea if we will see each other again and/or who we will be given how many impending deaths may happen in between our luscious hangouts. Ample choices remain open-ended as we hold space for a mood change that might arise from death. Before leaving for a retreat where M will be facilitating an exploration of death with her comrades - she sent me this excerpt from an article written by our human crush, Adrienne Marie Brown, called Murmurations: Accountable Endings:
This era is for visionary death doulas with time-traveling presence, able to stand in this moment full of embodied wisdom from our lived and ancestral experiences and ripe with possibilities and practices for a future that is nourishing for all of us.
Not shockingly, I responded with a resounding YES.
Brown goes on to share how to be accountable to a dying world, ideologically and physically, and prepare for the beginning of a new one. As part of nature, we, humans, are of course included in this process of liberating and necessary systemic change.
I’ve traced my first death to when I was about 7 years old. My dad and I were getting ready to go to Scarborough Town Centre, which was staying open late for the holiday mad rush. The mall would be packed with consumerism glee, and we would walk, warm and indoors, leaching off the energy of wishing and hoping and desiring, but buying nothing more than some New York Fries to share.
Before leaving, my parents began to argue at the level of normalized bickering about domestic labour, but it quickly escalated to catastrophic proportions. I stood at the top of the stairs as they shouted, likely nervous when I heard my father - my hero, my living teddy bear, the man whose arms I jumped in every day when he got home - SWORE, as in said the f-word. He didn’t directly swear at my mom, but he said the words. At that point, I had only really heard people swear on TV, and given how much it was disciplined against, I was sure he would perish into dust on the spot.
It is wild to me that almost 30 years later I can still feel the way those words stabbed me. I completely froze. I must have looked like a cartoon character, with my eyes bulging out. Immediately after his verbal blunder, my dad made eye contact with me, and I think we both knew something irreparable shattered. He wasn’t the model of perfection that I was smitten by, he was human, and often, deeply flawed.
I ran to the room, locked my door, and cried all night. We never made it to the mall.
The deaths continued with every passing year and season of being since that crude beginning, and they were mostly chaotic. I would swing from being inconsolable to becoming made of stone to assuaging my anxiety with intense busyness, routinely working until 3 AM and living in a constant fog. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I began to understand the value of personal death, slowly embracing it as a gift, a superpower and a practice.
What has sometimes felt like an insurmountable curse increasingly feels like a passed-down totem, which ironically was affirmed during a birth-chart reading that placed my sun sign of Taurus (our overall general personality) in the 8th house. The 8th house is often described as the house of death and endings, held by the Phoenix, and experienced as constant rebirth where a part of you is always dancing in the shadow. It is often crippling in weight, but what enamours me most about death is its clarity for life. In its wake and presence, death sharpens every sense and sight.
It is more fragile than glass and more mysterious than the physics of the universe. It is completely known and entirely unknowable. And each time it shows up, it calls for more life, another invitation to see and embody what truly matters in this short run of ours.
During this current phase of death, though it has been intense and emotional, practicing relaxing into it, going inside of it, and cradling it like a loved one, has felt like growth. It is emblematic of more trust for that which I can not control, and more acceptance that we are not ever fully in control, despite our best efforts.
Most of the time, death is fuelled by grief, the process of re-experiencing all the love you held for someone and something, but this time, I am feeling pangs of excitement within death, allowing change to reveal itself.
A few nights ago, I randomly binge-watched the last four episodes of From Scratch on Netflix (spoiler alert ahead) to distract myself from the upheaval. The first three episodes were hard to get through, but so many folks on my socials were lauding the show as ‘the greatest love story they had ever watched,’ so I decided to stay the course out of curiosity. The destined and true love story that begins with a Texan woman and a Sicilian man falling for each other on the streets of Florence, unfolds into one about death, as he is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer after moving to the US to be together.
Death looms for all of us, but a disease simply calls attention to it, or as they say in the show, ‘sucks the air out of the room’. Much is lost from the diagnosis - his dreams of opening a restaurant, her dreams of being an artist, income, seeing his adopted daughter grow up, and their plans to travel back to his hometown in Italy. But, much is gained, as he heals his relationship with his estranged father, and their previously wobbly families bind together into a finely tuned community of care during his treatment. During his last days, everything is in slow motion, as it takes the quality of precious. Everything matters in a way that feels impossible to capture in daily life but is the spiritual beckoning.
As his breath slows, they remain alive by holding their gaze. Here, life is enlivened and quickly understood, by death. I heave for an hour afterwards, grieving alongside Amahle, who is played by Zoe Saldaña.
Unbeknownst to me, this show becomes part of my doula team, and we go on. Endings and beginnings are the most fundamental truth of human life, and yet, some of the most difficult experiences to internally absorb, making them, eternally fascinating.