Saturday, September 22, 2012
I saw this amazing thing
The above photo is of the catacombs in Paris, always a tourist attraction, I understand. I learned recently that flash photography was invented in order to photograph this dark tunnel. This is not your blinged-up Halloween.
There is a lot written about the moment of your own death. Buddhists desire to be lucid and conscious of entering the great light. But we have a chance to practice confronting death numerous times in our lives - the deaths of others. I think that's what bothered me about the most recent funeral: everyone quickly pulled down the iron shield. There is a way to use Christianity to step away from this material world of loss and into talk of heaven and how special we are, the ones who believe the right thing. And the preacher used that to the fullest.
But the real magic trick was what the family did, elevating Dad (I wish I could artistically show the aura around that honorific that I heard in people's voices) to this wonderful fun person. Erasing 95% of his personality and 99% of the truth of his life, the mundane, the sad, his frustrations, his limits, the long, sad decay of his body and mind. Firmly putting in a beautiful walnut box with a brass plaque not only our personal loss and sadness, but also the fact that we, too, will die.
A death ought to leave us feeling like we are in the funhouse, the part where you're suddenly in the dark and the wooden walkway keeps shifting under your feet. Death is sobering. And people don't like it. I've seen many people jump right over that initial moment of tears and start writing the fiction and planning the big party. What a mess.
Awareness makes death hard for me to take. At the same time, I know that Buddhism has it right: life is dukkha, life is hard. Unsatisfying. The very nature of life is constant change, and change means loss as well as gain. You will lose people you love, and you will lose your own life in the end. Figure that out and maybe you'll stop spending every fourth Saturday in the beauty salon getting artificial. Don't figure it out, and you will feel dissatisfied at the very moments of life that "ought to" be gratifying, the Thanksgiving meal, the wedding, the birth.
Change is hard, is both death and birth. Birth - awareness - is hard, painful and messy. Sometimes I wish I could give it up. That makes me think of another of my favorite poems about the difficulty of giving up magic and theatre and pleasure, and acknowledging reality. "Journey of the Magi" was written by a devout Christian, T. S. Eliot. You can both listen to and read it here.