"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

living, will

death has been on my mind a lot lately. well, more than usual. ever since i was a kid, i've lived in fear of death, lived in fear of that great expanse of unknown beyond my last breath, in fear of my parents' death, haunted by the sudden passing of friends and family gone too soon. who was it that said life is just the act of dying? or "the day we are born we begin to die"? i hate to think of my life as a shadow negative of this inevitability, but there can be no denying it. i think learning to live is in many ways learning how to die.

this has become more pressing lately. when my Uncle Tony passed away ... spring of 2009, my entire foundation was rocked. it was one of my first years truly living away from home - out of college, working my first real-life, "grown-up" job as a teacher in a public middle school in south central - and i got the news in the middle of a school day, maybe it was even a wednesday. this was the thing i'd always feared, my entire life: leaving home and being away and alone and having to truly assume adulthood when i'd only previously been playing the part. acting like an "adult" in front of a room of insane and belligerent special ed 6th graders, while your entire understanding of reality and space/time is being torn asunder around you is truly an initiation into "adulthood" by means of trial by fire. i have never wanted to punch an eleven-year-old special needs child so much in my entire life.

that first experience of death, trying to understand the definitiveness, the finalness, the never-again-ness, changed me. it ripped the fabric of logic and reason, made my persistent daily wants and needs and desires seem cruel, selfish, terrible. i disgusted myself, felt disgusted at other people, at my/our insistence on living. my hunger pangs, my exhaustion, my cravings for warmth or kindness or whatever were just constant reminders of my own body's persistent fight to stay alive, to feed itself, to rest, to recover. all this pained and aggravated me, since it was also a reminder that these were things my uncle once did, and now won't.

the day after i heard the news, i remember, i emerged from my dark room, where i'd spent the majority of the day [which makes me think the news might have occurred closer to a weekend, or that i was still doing this - violently weeping - several days after the fact] on my bed in a fetal position, my body pinched in on itself in a full-body sob, weeping uncontrollably and relentlessly, and walked outside to get some fresh air (again, the body's urge to do what it needs to survive; in this case, getting some air and sunlight and resuming an upright, healthy posture). the sight of seagulls flying above the palm trees overhead, the sun shining in an almost cloudless sky, the onslaught of terrifying LA rush-hour traffic - all seemed to be terrible, disrespectful, indignant external reminders that life goes on; this day is, in all other respects, just like any other.


i have been reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, a birthday gift from my brother this past year. i don't remember how i came to hear about this book, but one day at work i was reading about different psychological phenomena, and "magical thinking" was mentioned, and the book's premise interested me, and since i've spent some part of the last year reading "award-winning" books, i asked for it for christmas. it has been... an informative book. well-researched and well-written, definitely, and interesting, although i hesitate to say "pleasurable," since of all the effects it has had on me, it's probably inspired an even deeper and more paranoid ideation with death, the "act" of dying, and living.

one of the ideas from Didion's book that's really stuck is the idea that the dying person can foretell their death, even in cases accidental or sudden. "Only the dying man can tell how much time he has left." this is, in some ways, a comfort, especially to those who have lost a loved one in tragic accidents, to know that perhaps they knew their time was coming. but, in my case, it's been a terrible fear-enhancer. suddenly, things my parents or friends do, like tell me they love me in an exceptional way, or giving me an important document, seem like portents of doom. and i know that's a terrible thing, like, the prime example of letting fear of death control your life and thoughts. i know it is the mark of a coward to live in constant fear of death, but, here i am. and what to do?

naturally, the thing to do is to prepare. this constant, unebbing thought that "we all know when our time has come" has, of course, come to make me think that perhaps i am about to die. (and even as i write this, i wonder to myself, will typing it make it even more true? will uttering this aloud make it come true, or stave it off?) does the fact that i persist on this notion indicate that i am nearing death, that this book and this idea, given to me so recently, is relevant for a reason, that reason being that something terrible is about to happen? i can't help wondering these things, even though i know it makes me crazy.

last month, my partner Ben lost his younger brother Andrew in a terrible accident. he had been living abroad for nearly 2 years, travelling and teaching in China and Taiwan. he was on a ten-day bike journey around the island of Taiwan, during his 2-week Chinese New Year holiday, when he was struck by an old man driving a van. Andrew died. (typing that still hurts, because it hasn't yet felt real. typing that feels like betrayal, like i've given up hope Andrew can still come back, like i've turned my back on him because i've accepted this reality, even though my mind and heart (and Andrew) live now in a reality separate from what that sentence means). in the days and weeks following, friends and family who knew Andrew have been grappling to understand what happened. friends received Christmas cards from him just days after the accident. i looked back on our exchanges, scrutinized emails, trying to examine them for clues that Andrew, in some way, knew. Andrew and i spoke via email just days before it happened, and i talked to him about visiting Taiwan in the summer, with Ben, and he replied that he was so excited for us to come, he couldn't wait to show us around. the day before the accident, i wanted to post something on his Facebook, commenting on one of his pictures, saying something about how he looked so much like his dad. i didn't, i hesitated and then decided not to, because i wasn't sure how he'd respond or take the comment. i wonder now, if i'd posted it, if he would have paused in the morning to read and respond, and would have thus been a minute or two behind on the road when the van swerved off and hit him where he was, without the comment.

Andrew kept a bucket list, or as he called it, a "to-do list." he didn't want to be an old man looking back at his life with regret. did he know? even if his to-live list wasn't a premonition, he understood that life is precious and fragile and not to be wasted - a profoundly inspiring wisdom borne from an acknowledgment of death; Andrew knew how to live. this is what i want for myself and for my fear of death, a greater appreciation and predilection for living.

Andrew's bucket list was a physical list he checked off and added to. i love that, i love that there are documents that speak to his life and his goals. now that we've lost Andrew (where did you go?) these documents - to-do-lists, journals, emails, blog posts, Facebook - are what we have left, what we can return to. this is my document.*

these days, we are all susceptible to getting lost in the daily grind, on focusing on ends rather than means, and thinking about a distant future rather than enjoying the present. i think living in the constant shadow of death can mean reclaiming life, and i intend to do that.

*i wrote previously about maintaining an e-life thru internet documents here, on my very first blog.

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