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A Borrowed Blog: “It’s Time To Stop Avoiding Death: You can’t have the life you want without letting go of the life you have” by David Cates

I thank David Cates for permitting me to post this timely writing (original post March 30, 2020).

“It’s Time To Stop Avoiding Death: You can’t have the life you want without letting go of the life you have”

I’ve been stunned by how thoroughly a tiny virus, barely 0.0001″ across, has brought our human world screeching to a halt. In a few short months, on a global scale, it’s kicked over all the old bedrocks, nation by nation, and clearly revealed the dark, wriggly underworld hiding just out of sight.

That sense of unease we’ve had — about governments and politicians, scientists and institutions, economies built on hope and lies, nature gasping from our poisons, societies splintering into dry tinder — all that is laid bare. And in the deafening silence of shutdown, there’s nowhere else to look. The veil’s been lifted. The world’s turned upside down. The roots are rotten.

This is what we have become.

Some of us still sneak out to the streets; some pull the netflix covers over their eyes. But as the days wear on, in quarantine, we’re being forced to see our lives, our jobs, our relationships, and our selves without those layers of frantic busyness and protective gauze. Exposed. Naked, squinting at the sun, unsure who we are, uncertain what to do.

*

I’ve been meditating lately on the vast, hidden networks of nature: the mycelium, bacteria, microbiota and yes, the viruses. The original organisms from which complex lifeforms evolved, and likely, the ones who will take over again when humans disappear from this world, adapting to eat up our plastic pollution and radioactive waste, and more immediately, to compost our physical bodies as each of us dies.

Nature is a web, innumerable networks in constantly shifting yin/yang balance. Death is an essential element in that balance. Embracing death brings us back into harmony with the underlying game as it’s played in this world, at every scale, from insects to empires.

Resisting death puts us at odds with the whole natural order.

*

These past few years, I’ve been pulled down into an underworld initiation. I accompanied first my sister and then my mother through the final months of their lives, sitting with them as they took their last breaths. Death is ordinary, terrifying and beautiful all at once. It cracks our hearts open in a way that nothing else can.

So before this new virus appeared, I’d already made friends with the dark and wriggly worlds under those flipped-over rocks. My naked skin had goose-bumped in the cold shadows. I’d felt the grief pooling in my lungs, and seen the world strangely magnified through tears.

I may be a bit further along this path than some of you. But maybe not. For in the bright light of these revelation-times, many of us are showing our hidden battle scars and secret hurts, the ancestral wounds we carry, the loves we’ve lost — all the tiny deaths we’ve not yet mourned and celebrated.

Apocalypse: the uncovering. What happens when the Emperor has no clothes? What happens when I lose my job and social place? What happens when I’m locked in a house alone with my family? When we can’t get food or medicine? When one of us starts coughing? When my competent identity crumbles, and you see who I really am, underneath the facade?

*

I’ve been reluctant to speak these questions out loud.

Many people have reached out to me for soothing, for certainty, for reassurance that we’ll soon be back to normal. Uncharacteristically, I’ve been holding my tongue.

I don’t think we can go back to “normal”.

Forgetful as we human creatures are, I can’t unsee this revelation. On every level, from the meta and systemic to relational and personal, this is where we are now. In the midst of the sixth mass extinction, pounded by climate change, with 20,000 children dying of hunger every day.

Much of our generalized panic about this situation, I believe, is misplaced. We’re focused on personal human deaths, our own or our loved ones. But when I step back, relax my gaze and focus on the bigger pictures here, it’s clear what’s really dying.

Our old, “normal” world has been rotting on its deathbed for decades. That stench in my nostrils is not from a few thousand (or even, soon, a few million) human bodies.

The social order has already broken down, politics is lethal, and nature is drowning in poisons.

Underneath the rocks, below the foundations, the roots are rotten.

And everyone knows it.

Our avoidance of death hasn’t actually stopped our world from dying. It’s just left us delusional, little children with our eyes squeezed shut, fingers plugging our ears, tongues babbling nonononononono.

The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has burst that dam of denial. It’s an equal opportunity killer, impacting every nation, rich and poor alike. No more bullshit. No more hiding.

Death is everywhere.

*

As we quarantine in place, isolated in our homes, the truth couldn’t be any plainer.

We can’t survive alone.

We’ve got to come together.

We’re social creatures, relying on each other for food, healing, touch, kindness, understanding, information, and a thousand other services.

Without others, we’re doomed.

And, as this current situation makes abundantly clear — as the virus passes from person to person, from hand to mouth to lungs — we’re also doomed with others.

Doomed if we do, and doomed if we don’t.

That’s the basic fact of life we have forgotten in our modern, go-go-go, scrambling-for-survival world.

Life is short. Death is certain.

Here it comes.

*

I’ve been short and ruthless with my closest friends and students. “I’ve made my peace with Death. You won’t find peace with this virus until you do, too.”

Certainly, protect yourselves and others in the ways that you can. Don’t be foolish. No need to race toward death.

But also don’t be foolish, thinking you can beat death forever.

Let’s take this precious time-out-of-time (while the world is holding its shocked breath, the rocks are kicked over and the curtain’s pulled back on the Wizard of Oz ) — and look deeply into why we’re all so terribly frightened of dying.

So frightened of dying that we’re willing to hide in our houses, let doctors and nurses do our dirty work without protective gear, abandon our grandparents to die alone in nursing homes.

So frightened of dying that we hand our power over to despots, and sacrifice a world worth living in together.

*

This is a moment of truth.

This tiny “enemy” we’re trying to defeat is just another face of Death. (Not to worry, Death has millions more.)

The entire natural world, for billions of years, has been an intricate, ever-changing dance of life and death. That’s the game here on this planet. We’re all just borrowing material from other lifeforms to make our own bodies. They dance together for a number of years, and then decay and are recycled.

It’s a beautiful system, when I surrender to it.

So many cells and atoms and microbes come together to support my personal creation! So many beings give themselves to feed and nourish me each day!

When I stop and really feel that gift, I’m overwhelmed with love and gratitude.

But rather than live with humble gratitude, and die with grace, we humans get selfish. Personally, relationally, economically, politically. We want to grab and hoard and hold on forever.

And in doing so, we miss the point. We may gain a few years, but we lose our hearts and souls.

We can see that clearly in the selfish 0.1% who hoard more wealth than they can ever use. We see the results of our collective greed as it kills off entire species and trashes the living biosphere.

We see that greed and fear strangle our own lives and relationships. Mememememememememe…

We may have separate bodies, but we’re not designed to live (or die) alone.

For better or worse, we’re part of an intricate, unimaginable, mysterious whole.

And when we turn away from Death, we lose our connection to that whole.

*

When my mother died, and the muscles in her face let go, her individual “personality” vanished: the twinkle in her eyes was gone, the way she smiled, the tilt of her head. But in their place, the bones revealed themselves, and in that distinct marble sculpture (the slope of the forehead, the thrust of the jaw) I saw her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother.

She was clearly part of something bigger, a temporary form borrowed for a handful of years, one face of a lineage that stretches back for millennia.

The rest was compost and ash, returned to the earth, gifts now available for other creatures to create their own turn in this world.

I want to be that let-go, that surrendered to everything: life, death, love, fear, all the beauty in this unfathomable mystery.

I want to enjoy my time in the sun, and then enjoy my time in the dark dreaming night. I want to remember my place in the whole.

*

All the best things in my life were unpredictable surprises. They came when I surrendered and let life take me somewhere new. New love, new work, new place in the world, sometimes even a new sense of self.

The trick, I believe, is not holding on to what life has already given me.

When my time comes, early or late, ugly or beautiful, I want to surrender again, and let death take me somewhere unfathomably new.

I wish the same grace for you: to turn toward apocalypse, curious, open, not knowing who you are, loving all that you’ve been given, maybe scared, maybe not… ready to let go of the old familiar world, and begin to assemble, from the strange scraps and compost and imaginal cells all around and inside you, something humble and connected and new.

Reach out to others. Share your heart, your joys and fears. Give your gifts. Connect to something bigger than yourself, human and more-than-human too.

Embrace the unknown. Be willing to die. A new world can’t come until we finally let go of this one.

We can let a tiny virus do the heavy lifting for us. We can wait for the next virus, and the next.

Or we can push through this birth canal together.

*

A few days before my mother died, when she was getting frustrated and frightened and losing her anchors to reality, I told her, “You’re doing such a great job, Mom! You’ve never tried to die before, and this is all new to you. I think you’re doing this perfectly.”

She smiled the most glorious little-girl smile, and content with herself, finally stopped fussing with the blankets and let go.

And as she died, she showed me that death is not the enemy here.

Death is a doorway to love.

In the same way that birth blows hearts open and changes lives forever, so does death.

Don’t turn away.

Don’t turn away from all that’s dying.

Face it, feel it, mourn it, grieve it.

Let it blow your heart open.

This is the doorway to a new world.

Here, in your lost and scared and grieving heart.

This is the opening.

We’ve never done this before.

But now the lights are on, and we can see where to begin.

 

Follow David Cates https://medium.com/@kauaidavid

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Mourning Dove

I am up and out at 8am on my deck again, listening and watching. I hear what must be a mourning dove cooing. A sound so gentle emitting from the trees, underneath the squawking of jays, the caw of crows, the joyous singing of the red-winged blackbirds. Two ducks come out of the cattails, dark in the shadows of the morning light, and head for the edge of the pond where I can longer see them. Are they nesting there? Is this their time to nest? So much is going on outside. So much to observe and contemplate. What are the wrens singing about? Are they telling each other something important, are they broadcasting sheer happiness? What happened to the wood duck that was there the other day? Do mallards and wood ducks get along?

Is there a way I can watch and listen to nature that will guide me during these uncertain times? Even though I live in the country, I can get caught in distraction and restlessness.

This coronavirus hovering about can lead me to feel anxious and fenced in, sometimes overwhelmed. Again and again, nature encourages me to live in the moment. It also awakens me to a childlike curiosity that feeds my spirit.

My meditation group, now no longer able to gather physically, is still sitting at the same time, once a week. This week, we are invited to envision a better future. What is coronavirus teaching us? How well are we listening? What needs to change, within and without? There’s no doubt that, by sequestering ourselves, we bring more peace to the planet. The air over large cities all over the world is clearing up. Animals are coming out of hiding, understanding we humans are pulling back, taking a break.

Coronavirus is forcing us to look within and ask questions. Are we living a life we can be proud of? Are we listening to Mother Nature and what she is telling us? Can we help others who are suffering more than us? Can we befriend our neighbors at this time, even the ones who differ greatly from us? Can we create a warmer, cooperative, more functional society? A society that is all-inclusive, or are our differences too fundamental? Is it too late to change?

After I ponder these questions, I come back to the sound of the mourning dove’s soft cooing, as other birds carry on, fluttering about and hopping from tree to tree. Her voice is consistent and calm beneath the chaos and activity, her feathers, I imagine, soft and unruffled.

 

After Reading Peterson’s Guide by Linda Pastan

I used to call them

Morning Doves, those birds

with breasts the rosy color

of dawn who coo us awake

as if to say love . . .

love . . . in the morning.

 

But when the book said

Mourning Doves instead

I noticed their ash-gray feathers,

like shadows

on the underside

of love.

 

When the Dark Angel comes

let him fold us in wings

as soft as these birds’,

though the speckled egg

hidden deep in his nest

is death.

Nature’s Presence

This morning, early, I step out on the back deck with a cup of tea and binoculars. Simon greets me with a soft “meow”. I sit down on the planks cross legged and he pads over to me and curls up in my lap and begins to purr. We both look out at the view and listen to the birds, his ears greatly attuned to nuances of sound, move this way and that.

20200424_071327 

Ironically, since “shelter in place”, I’ve been spending more time outdoors than usual. It’s been in the upper 60s and lower 70s lately and spring here is gorgeous. There is so much news about COVID-19 that can lead to anxiety for me, but when I go outside onto the deck and listen and watch, I calm down, I heal. I open myself up to the present moment and my worries begin to slough off.

Red-winged blackbirds flash among the cattails, RedwingBlkbirdsinging out. A duck calls from across the pond. Another glides across the water silently.              The hills, further out, show patches of green meadow. Clouds move momentarily across the sun.

We don’t know how COVID-19 will affect us ultimately in our communities, our state, our country, the world. We don’t know how long it will linger. But, we do know this present moment, which is all we have, and lately, it’s nature that reminds me of this, and for that I am so grateful.

 

Mornings at Blackwater by Mary Oliver

“For years, every morning, I drank

from Blackwater Pond.

It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,

the feet of ducks.

And always it assuaged me

from the dry bowl of the very far past.

What I want to say is

that the past is the past,

and the present is what your life is,

and you are capable

of choosing what that will be,

darling citizen.

So come to the pond,

or the river of your imagination,

or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world.

And live

your life.”

 

Copyright:                                                                                                                                        Oliver, Mary. (2017). Devotions: The selected poems of Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin Press.

My Anxiety and the Unknown; COVID- 19

I am all over the place lately, leaping from fear to peace. I am reflecting what is happening all over the globe: Chaos and fear, yet a slowing down of activities. Sometimes I obsess about all kinds of things: Will I get this illness? Will I die a horrible death? Do I have enough tp? What if one of my caregivers gets sick and spreads the virus to others? What if I am left with no caregivers? How do I clean properly? Did I wipe down the doorknobs after someone left? What if I forgot? Anxiety loves this kind of stuff. It thrives on it.

And then, suddenly I am peaceful and feel wide open and content. Calm. And more connected to nature. The trees around my house seem more vibrant than ever. I watch the ducks in the pond happily waddling about, and I breathe more deeply. The red-winged blackbirds sing their delight at being alive and dive in and out of the cattails. Sometimes I go outside and sit on the earth and cry. I don’t know what I’m crying about, but tears run down my face. I sob. It feels good to do so. And I feel supported by the earth when I do.

Yesterday, while I was out there, Simon, our cat, came and sat with me and then curled up in my lap. We both surveyed the pond, the meadow, the hills. And I thought: If all humankind died, the earth  would heal and that thought gave me peace. I love my friends, family and community, and sometimes am able to love all humankind, but, as my mother used to say, “We are the most destructive species on the planet.” She was right and it’s a hard fact to sit with.

Sometimes, I open my heart to not knowing. Not knowing if certain people I know and love will survive. Not knowing if local businesses will survive. Not knowing how long the virus will survive. And these thoughts take me to the big “I Don’t Know” – the mysteries of The Universe. And this thought leads to Freedom.