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Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Great Leveler

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. - Jorge Luis Borges

Two weeks ago I was with my friends up near Parksville at our annual spa getaway.  As we were getting out of the car at the entrance to the resort, I spotted a dead bird lying on the side of the parking lot.  For a moment, the two of us who spotted it paused, and expressed that moment of "aw".  It was freshly killed, although by what means I couldn't determine, and if I had reached down to touch it, it would probably have still been warm.  Instead, I turned away and walked into the resort with my friends, more or less forgetting about it.

One of my favourite Buddhist articles, and one I turn to and re-read every now and then, is called "Time and Impermanence in Middle Way Buddhism and Modern Physics" . It's an interesting, if somewhat mind boggling examination of the irreversible process of time and decay from both a physics and a Buddhist perspective, and ultimately it is a gentle reminder of the great leveler:  death.  Since the event of my mother's passing when I wasn't quite 15, I have been alternately curious and terrified of the idea of death.  In the western world, we tend to hide dead bodies, or when they are displayed, as in an open casket funeral, the bodies are dressed and made up in order to preserve something of the person that used to reside in them.  In other words, we try to make them look as if they might be sleeping, but not dead. We don't like to think of death and we do everything to avoid it, both emotionally and physically.

At the age of 15 I had no frame of reference to make sense of my mother's death;  it seemed only a cruel, dark and frightening event that I immediately began the process of trying to forget.  I have since experienced the passing of many people, some were close to me and others were simply acquaintances, and each time it happens, I am brought to that same emotional quagmire where there are no answers to any of the big questions.  It seems for many of us that the emptiness that comes with the death of a loved one always carries with it the same list of questions.  Why did that person die and where did they go, if anywhere?  Human beings are wired to wonder.  Some of us have our spiritual beliefs to fall back on when these life events throw us for a loop, and they give us comfort to some degree.  But even with all of those spiritual explanations to the mysteries of life, I'd venture to guess that the original questions still exist for many people, even if only at the back of their minds.  My mother's death sent me on that inevitable spiritual quest and eventually I found my peace with it.  I'm grateful my children haven't had to experience the same thing at such a young age.

But last year when we had to euthanize our cat, my daughters faced the end of a life for the first time.  Up to that point, they'd never gone through the loss of anyone dear to them, so this was as close as they'd been;  a sobering event and one that brought about the usual list of questions.  My daughters are both young adults, so they weren't exactly asking me "Mommy, why?", but I know they were both grappling with what it all meant.  I watched them grieve in a way they never had before, and became acutely aware of my own inability to take their pain away.

We buried Picard the cat in our back yard in a place where he used to love to lie in the summertime.  And for many days after we buried him, I wondered about what was happening to his body...perhaps a morbid line of thinking and disturbing to some degree, but it was also a strange kind of curiosity.  For a time I wondered to myself if maybe it would have been better to have him cremated; maybe to avoid the discomfort of having to imagine him decaying there.  But the decision to bury him had been made long before, and so he remained in the ground, a garden stone with his name on it marking his place.

The other day when I was cleaning the kitchen, I turned on the radio, and as I worked I listened to a CBC show called The Bottom Line with David Suzuki.  I'd never heard of it before, but my curiosity was piqued when I realized that this episode (Episode 8) was about the interconnectedness of our bodies and the earth around us.  They went into some detail about what happens to a dead body if it is left to the ravages of the outdoors, whether buried or not, over time.  As gross as it was, it was also quite fascinating, and it reminded me of that article I mentioned above.  But what was most interesting to me was the idea that the earth provides us with food and water and air in order to facilitate our lives, and when we die our bodies become the same for the creatures around us, whether we are buried or cremated.  You'll have to listen to it to get the real picture, and I warn you, some of it is a bit grotesque.  But I especially liked Suzuki's story of his father writing his own obituary and what he said in it, which was a kind of thread of thought that went through the whole episode.  Now you'll have to listen for yourself :-), and in fact you can hear a podcast of that episode if you go to the link above.

One life changing experience for me took place in February of 2000, when a friend of mine passed away from colon cancer.  I was not there at the end of her life, but I did visit her body at the invitation of her family at her wake.  I had not been present when my mother passed away either, nor had I ever seen a dead body before, so this was definitely a new experience for me and I was pretty hesitant at first to enter her room.  It was kept cold by an open window, probably to slow down the decomposing process (sorry to be so graphic!), and she lay on a bed which was decorated with flowers and hearts because it was near Valentine's Day.  I reluctantly sat down on a chair by her, and eventually decided I should say something to her, but it felt kind of strange talking to myself.  Which is really what I sensed I was doing.  After a respectable amount of time, I got up and left the room.  Days later it hit me that seeing her like that was very much like seeing a dead creature on the ground;  just an empty shell of something that used to be, about to disappear back into the earth.

That event changed a lot of things for me;  it gave me some of the answers that I had been seeking since my mother's passing and set me on another course of self discovery.  Those two events, my mother's and my friend's passing, became like bookends to my spiritual journey, not that I feel my journey has ended, but I do feel more comfortable with the way I view it now.  To me life and death are a perpetual, critical cycle, filled with many smaller cycles, each in balance, each requiring the end of another one before, so that it can begin. I'd forgotten all about the dead bird until we were checking out of the resort at the end of our weekend.  The bird's body was still there, but in those two days it had already become more or less skeletal, decomposing quite rapidly that short period of time;  going back to the earth that gave birth to it, giving its body back so that other creatures could be, for a short time, given life and allowed to thrive.

IJ