Archive for category Death

A Tad More Magical

Tuesday I was driving back from Portland to Farmington.   I was nearing Augusta thinking about where I’d pick up a bite to eat, as well as getting equipment for my just turned nine year old son to start a video editing hobby.   It crossed my mind that interstates are dangerous places, it’s always possible that an unexpected turn of events could lead to an accident.   My last thoughts of this life could be about how I was feeling hungry!

This wasn’t a disturbing or ghoulish thought.  Death is an integral and necessary part of life.   I think to really embrace life and be content one has to first overcome the fear of death.   There is one fundamental reason people fear death – they believe that this reality and life experience is the only thing of value, and that once it’s gone one suffers extreme loss.   If one believes that, then the events of the world are of monumental importance, they are the essence of life’s meaning.

Such a view shifts focus from looking inside to looking at the world for validation, approval and self-worth.   The world is really bad at providing those things.   Career only provides temporary validation — there’s always one more step to take up the latter.   Advertising and movies have created unrealistic ideals of beauty, family life and success.   The world is more likely to make people feel worse about themselves, focusing on what they lack, where they fall short, and what’s missing from life.   Others might fixate on sports, politics, fashion or something to stay distracted. Fear of death increases dissatisfaction with life.

I was simply curious.   So I decided to open up my mind and just say whatever words popped out.   “What does one feel upon death,” I asked?   Then I said the word “accomplishment.”  I said it without thinking and puzzled.   Accomplishment?   “But not every life is an accomplishment is it?”

I then answered myself, “Of course it is.   Life itself is just an experience.  It is an exploration of the nature of existence.  The universe is unified, everything is connected.  Lives provides information and understanding.  A life as a drug addict murderer accomplishes as much as a life as a Nobel scientist because it explores how it is that context and personality lead to those sorts of experiences.   The individual is a conduit of information.”

I then pondered the words that had just come out of my mouth and continued to talk out loud.   “The individual is an experience point, but I and the world in which I inhabit are part of a unified reality, and life is a way to experience how that reality works.   A person who experiences a very horrific existence may in fact accomplish more than a person who has an easy existence…

“No…every life is an equal accomplishment.  It is part of the tapestry, it is part of some kind of universal self-learning/awareness…”

I paused.  “OK, what does that mean?   Does it mean nihilism, anything goes since all life is accomplishment?   No, because that kind of attitude is only possible when you separate context from individual experience.   Whether or not you say ‘anything goes’ depends not just on you as a discrete individual, but the way the context of your life experience shapes how you understand and interpret your reality.   The discrete individual does not make choices outside of a context, who we are is very much determined by our place in the universe, we are not disconnected entities navigating a world separate from ourselves.

“Maybe life is being a part of everything.  Maybe what’s inside reflects all of what’s outside and vice-versa.  Maybe different people living different lives are not truly ‘someone else’ but a part of me experiencing the world from a different perspective.”

At that point I had to exit the interstate so I stopped talking and shifted my focus to driving my car and avoiding a life ending accident!  I got a personal pizza at the Pizza Hut in Target, and then bought a Sony camcorder and video editing software at Best Buy.  As the sun was setting I headed up towards Farmington, enjoying an absolutely beautiful evening.  Even though my mind went elsewhere after that, the world seemed a tad more magical than it had before.


Cherish Life

At 9:30 Wednesday morning Farmington was the scene of a horrific accident.   It took place near the busiest intersection in town, where routes 2/27 connect with route 4, near the university and the local McDonalds.   A number of people were injured and one person killed, a 12 year old girl named Tess Meisel.   Early on the only news available was that the van was associated with a YMCA camp.   The picture in the news story showed the back part completely crushed, and the girl was sitting in the back seat.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s just a statistic.   Another highway fatality, one of about 35,000 we’re likely to have in the US this year.   Many will be children, far too many will be teens, and it’s easy to simply chalk it up to life’s risks.    Yet like so many of us in Farmington who never knew the girl and communicated and shared links on facebook to discuss the day’s big accident, I found it devastating.    Sometimes you have to think about the faces and emotions behind a statistic.

My son Ryan is 8, and he participated in the UMF Summer Daze camp this year.   They often took vans to various field trips, some as far away as the coast.   It did cross my mind that there’s always the risk of an accident, but the vans always returned safe and sound, if not always on time.   I immediately thought of what the parents of this young girl must be experiencing.   They send their daughter to camp in Maine for amazing experiences, not expecting fate to launch such a vicious blow.

They might think they did the wrong thing sending her to camp — if only she’d stayed home in Connecticut she’d be fine.  But the thing about this kind of accident is that it is literally out of the blue.   There is nothing the van driver could have done to avoid it, you don’t expect a truck to roll over on a busy street!   Such events can happen anywhere, any time.    There’s no way to know in advance what the right move would be.

The story linked above about the girl shows that she was an intelligent and impressive young woman.   She had won an award for environmental innovation by inventing a reusable pizza box and tray.   Given what my last blog entry was about, the pizza connection made me feel a bit closer to this stranger.   I know very little about her or her family, but can imagine how horrible life has suddenly become for them as they try to adjust to a world that will always have an empty spot.    It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it; they have to live it.

Yet, that is life.  Every day is full of risk.  In the Spring Dr. Mellisa Clawson and I will teach our ‘Children and War’ class, with stories of child soldiers forced to fight, often being drugged up with cocaine.   We’ll talk about lives and families torn apart by conflict, realizing that children suffer and die in much of the world.   As horrible as this one accident is, things like this happen.   Every day brings risk.

That isn’t what I bring away from this, though.    Instead I look over into the other room where my five year old son is watching “Ben 10,” or upstairs where my eight year old is working with legos.   It’s easy to take them for granted and to think of childhood as primarily preparation for the future, giving children the tools to succeed.   That is part of it.   What they experience now will hopefully give them the strength to say no to drugs, to treat women with respect and have a strong sense of values.   Now is when they develop their work ethic and core beliefs about reality.   But that’s only a part of childhood; success and accomplishments are only a part of living.   We plan, compete, measure our accomplishments and seek to improve.    Each success is quickly past and a new challenge arises.

Live life focused on seeking success and when it’s over it can seem pointless.   Our accomplishments are transient and likely to be forgotten within a generation.  To see life purely in terms of what one accomplishes would be to see the loss of a 12 year old girl as a waste; the accident denied her potential for success and eliminated all that she might have achieved.   Perhaps her pizza box will catch on, otherwise, so much potential was obliterated.

No.  That’s not the way to look at life.   None of us are here for an eternity.    For even the famous less than one tenth of 1 % of ones’ dance on this planet gets remembered or recorded.    To measure life in that way is to deny the true essence of living.   Whether you live to 12 or 120, each moment is at any given point in time all that exists.   Now lasts forever.   What matters are connections with others, interactions with family and friends.   Laughter matters, a sense of joy matters, the light she brought into the lives of family, friends and acquaintances matters.   Those things are just as consequential if one’s life lasts 12 years or100.

Those moments are true reality, they are where the human soul resides.   They can’t be measured in days or money because time and wealth are transient and ultimately dissipate.   No one gets out of here alive.  You can’t take it with you.  The joy one brings into the world simply by being has power and meaning on its own.   Her 12 years could well have been more consequential and powerful than many peoples’ entire lives.   Not a wasted life, just shorter one.

For me this also means vowing not to let a day go by without thinking about my children not in terms of who they might become or what they might do, but for the spark of light and life they bring to each day: for the way in which their laughter and sense of play brings joy, contentment and exuberance to all of us.   To cherish the moments today, NOW, when we are connecting is the meaning of life, not plans or accomplishments.   Cherish life in the present.   If the future brings tragedy, those moments and memories will be the essence of what that life meant, and it can be powerful, good and change who we are.     That is as real for a 12 year lifespan as for a 95 year life.    That is as real for widow who loses her life partner as it is for the parent who lose their little girl.

And maybe as we connect to that part of life, those moments and memories can transcend time.   Time with my five year old is unique; he will never be five again, these moments are valuable in and of themselves.    To cherish life is to realize no matter what the future brings, now has meaning.

Tonight a family in Connecticut is likely grasping for meaning, staring into a void that feels like it will never go away.  Life goes on; time doesn’t heel all wounds but it can hide them.   Yet ultimately it does disservice to the life of anyone if their death brings long term pain and saddness to others.  It may take awhile, but hopefully the family of Tess Meisel will see that remembering the moments of living and how they enriched their experience not only dignifies her life but overshadows the fact she left early.  For now, many of us in Farmington are sending prayers, positive energy and shedding tears for a family whose little girl we did not know, but whose life ended tragically in our town.



Yesterday I heard the news about a seven year old girl being washed off the rocks at Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park.   Though she and a few others were rescued, she died at the hospital, a victim of the surf from Hurricane Bill.   In the paper today was a story about a local man who is pleading guilty to manslaughter.   Apparently he was watching an 11 month old and, driven crazy by her screaming, hit her in the stomach hard enough to kill her.   He then tried to cover it up by claiming she fell down the stairs.   Also, he seems to be devastated by the event, and allegedly has contemplated suicide.

When I heard the news about the seven year old, I closed my mind and made a picture of a young girl, about Ryan’s age, excited to see the high waves at one of the most beautiful national parks in the country.   Her family was likely in vacation mode, relaxed, and not even considering that there could be danger at this usually serene park.   I imagined what it was like for the parents now, trying to cope, the girl’s shock, fear and pain as she was mortally wounded, and the emotions of the rescue workers and doctors as they tried to save her.    Did she have siblings, are her parents still together?   I don’t know, but I imagined what they might be experiencing.   As I did that, I made no effort to prevent my emotions from feeling that pain, or tears from coming into my eyes.

I can shut off emotions.   I’ve learned that if I think abstractly, remind myself of statistics, and put things in a different perspective, I could hear a story like that and think “oh well, that’s life.   People die in accidents every day.”   I mean, I teach about the Rwandan genocide which killed nearly a million in 100 days, Stalin’s gulags with 20 million dead, or Mao’s industrialization plan for China that lead to a famine which killed 30 million.   People are starving daily, children are orphaned thanks to AIDS throughout Africa, children are kidnapped and sold into sex slavery, and in war zones children face death and injury daily.

So if I think in those terms, I can completely avoid any tears or sorrow over a news story about one seven year old.   Yet I do not.   I choose to let the emotions come forward, feel them, examine them, think about what I would do if something happened to my child, and let the tragedy affect me.    Long ago I made a conscious choice not to shut off my empathy in cases like this.

I do so for two reasons.   First, I want to know myself and my emotions.  If I keep them bottled up, and abstract away chances to really think through the emotional meaning of an event, then I will hide a part of myself from myself.    I realized that if I did that abstraction thing, after awhile it would become second nature.  I’d never really feel emotion over something like the death of one stranger; at a logical rational level it’s meaningless.    At least she had a good life (I assume) for seven years, unlike seven year olds butchered in third world war zones.   Soon, though, it would be natural to turn off all empathy — I could abstract away every circumstance and event, and coldly yet rationally accept “that’s the way the world is,” or “their choices brought about the consequence.”   I might even fool myself that such an ability was “strength” and that those who felt emotion were being “weak.”

Yet that abstraction is the easy way.   It’s also dangerous.   If you hide your own emotions from yourself, then you may not understand what’s happening when a tragedy in ones’ own life forces unexplored emotions to the surface.    One time after my first son was born, I thought about what would happen if he were abducted or killed in an accident.  I went through it in a way that literally had tears running down my face (and hoping my wife wouldn’t wake up and wonder what the hell I was crying about).   Few people put themselves through that kind of experience, but I felt it necessary to explore how I would react and think.  Of course, I knew that it hadn’t happened, but oddly enough in the emotion of that kind of exercise reality isn’t always as strong as imagination.   To break out of it, I had to force myself back to reality.   I think, though, I know myself better because I don’t always shut down emotion.   If I’m in public I’ll do the rationalizing/abstracting thing quite often to avoid embarrassment, but otherwise I let myself feel.

Another reason is that I think it has an impact on how I look at ethics and choices in the world.   Take war.   For many people war is often chosen as a reaction to an evil leader, or a threat from a strange civilization or ideology.    The emotion there is fear, and war is abstracted into simply an act of providing security or implementing justice.   Yet for me, my first thought is the emotion of the people who will be killed, the human tragedy that war entails — especially in an era when 80% of the casualties are innocent civilians.   This causes me to view such things differently than I otherwise would, and makes me prone to oppose war and look at human ethics before abstract interest.

Of course, one could accuse me of mushy thinking — consideration of the suffering of innocents might blind me from seeing the stark reality that war is a necessity in this dangerous world and not fighting when necessary might cause even more suffering.    Yet my thinking isn’t mushy.   I understand the arguments about war, I have been studying and teaching that material for 20 years!   When I talk about, say, the Iraq war in class, I spend 20 minutes making the most persuasive case possible for the war, to show students why it could have been seen as logical, even necessary.   So my thinking is very clear on the arguments and logic.   In fact, one reason I choose to put the human ethic first is because from my knowledge of war and history, it’s rare that conflicts actually improve things.   The only time they seem to fix things is when they so utterly destroy a system so that the survivors have to start over from scratch.

In all political debates I try to take this notion of ethics as being connected to how we emotionally understand the predicament of others seriously.   This pushes me in diverse directions.   Sometimes towards what might be called socialism, sometimes towards libertarian views.    Ideologies are intellectual abstractions, they don’t connect well with taking the subjective human experience seriously.    The choice I’ve made on how to view the world seems to me to be emotionally and intellectually more robust and tenable than either pure emotion or pure abstraction.   Yet it creates calls I have to make based on purely subjective criteria — and, of course, there is no reason for others to adopt my criteria.

It’s also why I have mixed feelings about the second case.   If the killer really did simply lose control in a moment of rage, and is devastated by the result, how much vengeance is appropriate?   The family of the dead child may want the killer to pay severely, but does that do anything to bring back the child?   Does it just waste two lives, when perhaps it’s possible for the killer to learn, change, and do good?   Abstracting the case makes it easier — one can say “he killed her, he should pay,” or conversely “it was a rage crime, he can be rehabilitated.”   To think about the suffering of the family of the child, the child, the man’s own inner torment, and what’s best is a case with no clear solution.   Tragedies are like that.


Pop Culture Icons

On Thursday both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died.   Each were major figures in the pop culture scene, though Jackson clearly played a more profound role.   The reaction of the public to Jackson’s death was reminsicient of when another major pop icon, Elvis Presley.   Like Jackson, Presley had not handled the fame and wealth well, delved into drugs and general weirdness.  Presley didn’t fall as far from grace as Jackson did, but in each case we’re left with a sour taste in our mouths.   These greats who did so much to shape a generation of music could not shoulder the pressure of fame.

But first, the one being forgotten in much of the coverage: Farrah Fawcett.   She came to prominence in 1976 with both the TV show “Charlie’s Angels” and a poster that came in Life magazine that is still the best selling pin-up in history.   She became synonomous with glamor and sex appeal for the late seventies, a beautiful smile, slender, with long curly blonde hair.   Later she starred in a movie based on a true story, The Burning Bed about spousal abuse.  Finally, after years of refusing to be photographed or act in the nude, she appeared in Playboy when she was near 50, still in demand.   She married the “$6 million man” Lee Majors, though they were together only six years (known during that time as Farrah Fawcett Majors), and for the last 27 years was in a relationship with actor Ryan O’Neill.

I was 16 when Charlie’s Angels started, and I actively disliked Farrah Fawcett.  I did not consider her attractive.  Kate Jackson was my favorite “Angel,” and I found myself disliking the way in which Fawcett became the symbol of beauty in the late seventies (rivaled by Bo Derek when the movie “10” came out in 1979).   Yet for a few years, she was the one.   This was the era when cable was relatively new, and had not yet spawned MTV, CNN, or massive television offerings.   You had ABC, CBS and NBC, and this was ABC’s big hit.  So nearly everyone watched it at least sometimes, and the show became a very integral part of the pop culture life of late seventies America.

At the same time, Michael Jackson had already been on the scene for years.   When I was nine years old I started buying 45s and listening to music.   That was the same year 11 year old Michael Jackson started recording with the already touring family quintet, the Jackson 5.  His style, voice, dance and ability to connect with the audience soon made him the star, as their first singles, “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “I’ll Be There” were major hits.  Despite more hits like “Ben” (about a rat), the Jackson 5 never regained that level of success.  Renamed “the Jacksons” they continued without much fanfare.

Then Jackson emerged with the right stuff at the right time.   After writing a grammy winning song for the film “ET,” he put together his second solo album, Thriller just as MTV was taking off.  MTV had started in 1980, and had become a pop culture phenomenon as music started to appear in video as well as audio form.   This quickly became a new art form, as bands and directors tried to figure out the best way to wed sound and image.  It spawned quick new stars — David Lee Roth’s humor, Steve Perry’s beautiful hair, and Madonna’s sassy rebellion.

Of all of them, only Madonna rivals Jackson in early influence.  Jackson’s thriller became an event.  MTV hyped it, more money and time was spent constructing the sets, choreographing the dances, and fine tuning the production.  Jackson’s dance skills had set him apart when he was a boy, he now was taking dance in new directions, and merging the fading disco genre with a new sophisticated eighties style.  Yet music was still pop, there was still only minimal fragmentation into multiple genres and types (pop, country, easy listening, and R&B/Soul).   Record albums still ruled (though CDs were now available), and it took a lot of money to produce and market an album.   Jackson was still in an era where if something hit big, it had universal rather than niche success.   If he had been born five years later or earlier, he would not have been able to hit the pop culture scene with this kind of impact.

For the rest of the eighties Jackson (along with Madonna and Prince) were the unrivaled pop trend setters.   There were other big acts, but Jackson was the undisputed King of Pop, a role rivaling the Beatles in the 60s and Elvis in the 50s.  Seven hits from Thriller made Billboard’s Hot 100, and success continued.  Though by the 90s as music fragmented, eighties pop faded, and Jackson seemed to engage in ever more bizarre behavior, the child star became a caricature.  Still admired and loved by millions, but for a variety of reasons, seen by others as strange and even perverted.

Those of us who do not dwell on Jackson’s scandals and remember his contribution to pop aren’t really remembering Jackson the man, just as Elvis fans aren’t thinking of a pill popping banana peanut butter fatty when they mourn the (alleged) death of Elvis.   It is less  the person than the moment when each were in the right place at the right time.  Elvis, the Beatles and Jackson would all have been non-descript acts if they had come a bit later or sooner; they came right when the pop world was ready for something new.   There are many talented and even brilliant artists, but success requires more than that — it requires timing and opportunity.

We remember the early eighties, the reaction to Thriller, and the take off of MTV.  We recall an earlier time when MTV was the music scene, and pop dominated.  This was before grunge, before fragmentation, before downloads and MP3.  You still took the album art seriously and debated the song order on the album (and what was on side 1 vs side 2).  It was a different world, and Jackson epitomized an era within it.

Farrah Fawcett’s standard of beauty in the late seventies, and Jackson’s standard of pop music and MTV style in the early eighties, helped define an era.  Those of us who were young during that era cannot help but feel some sense of loss when these aging icons pass away.

Alas, like Elvis, Jackson couldn’t process what his cultural status meant for his personal life.   It was worse for Jackson; he had never had a normal life, he had always been a star, always in a kind of fantasy life.  As such, he drifted further from reality.   He seemed to lose himself in all of that, honored as an artist, pitied and even reviled as a person.   Yet I refuse to judge him; the challenge of early wealth and fame is perhaps a greater personal burden than the challenge of poverty and prejudice.  He never had to develop personal traits of honor and courage, his “advantages” left him ill prepared for life.


Realist melancholy

(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion.  This week I will blog about one of the writings each day.   Last year for day five I wrote about Robinson Jeffer’s piece The Answer.)

I always have trouble with poems.  I’ve written poetry, but I don’t analyze it well.  Luckily, my student assistant this year, Jade Forester, is a poetry expert and has taken over the class when we discuss poems.  I become one of the students (which is good modeling to students of how we’re all teachers and learners).  But today I’ll attempt a blog entry about a poem, this one Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly Buzz.”

The poem is short, the first stanza is:

I heard a Fly buzz — when I died
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air
Between the Heaves of Storm

Here I picture a serene room, with a woman on a bed, white drapes on a window at either twilight or dawn.  No one is with her, the room is silent, and then the focus turns towards one of the window drapes upon which a fly sits, and then takes off buzzing.   The woman, eyes closed, breaths one loud, last breath, and then everything is still.   Yet the sense from the last line is that this stillness is a moment of piece, with chaos and uncertainty both preceding and following it.   Next section:

The eyes around — had wrung them dry —
And Breaths were gathering firm
For the last Onset — when the King
Be witnessed — in the room —

This takes me back in time to before the fly enters.  The eyes around were family and friends, but somehow cold.  They had accepted the coming death, they had dry eyes and firm breaths…but her eyes were now dry as she faces death, no remorse, and a sense of firm acceptance of the inevitable.   The King is death, and is the fly, entering the room.  Next:

I willed my keepsakes — Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable — and then it was
There interposed a Fly

With Blue — uncertain stumbling Buzz
Between the light — and me —
And then the Windows failed — and then
I could not see to see

She had let go of not only her hope for life, but all her possessions, assigning them away both literally and figuratively, they mattered to her no more.  She was at the moment of total surrender as the fly appeared.  The blue is a mix of the light from outside (probably twilight, maybe dawn) and the drape, a literal blue from the literal window, and a figurative blue inside her soul.   The fly now stands between the world of the real, and the world of her soul.  Its buzz connects the material world with the spiritual, the buzz exists in both.  She is in transition.  Then the windows failed.  The literal window, the windows that are her eyes, and the window of her soul.  Death came.  And then…mystery.   Whatever is next cannot be expressed.

To me this poem is one of realist melancholy.   Death is not posited as a transition to some other place, be it heaven, hell or a spiritual door to another life.   It isn’t a revelation of a greater reality.   The end doesn’t turn grief to joy, or pain to pleasure.   Yet it also isn’t a snuffing out of existence completely, or the absolute end.  It is a mystery.  There is a sense of fear that it could be an absolute end.   The blue is a color of melancholy and coldness, and the windows failing shows no sense of what is to come.

Yet, despite the fear, the buzz is uncertain and stumbling.   Perhaps, just perhaps, there is something more, something yet to come.   Perhaps the buzz is a gateway.   That “perhaps” seems to be half-hearted, the melancholy chokes off any hope.  But yet, it is a mystery.

This poem to me shows me a take on reality that I do not normally feel.  I know that the end is a mystery as well.   Yet mine is a spiritual optimism.  Despite the mystery, I believe that death cannot be the real end, and that it must only be a transition.  I do not believe the soul can truly perish, I suspect we live other lives, either here or on other planes, I suspect that the world we experience is only a shadow of a greater reality.   Like flies unaware that they are either buzzing around the White House or destroyed death filled Sudanese villages, we are only dimly aware of the greater reality.

If I were writing the poem, the fly and its buzz would represent our ignorance, and death would be an expansion of the mind and soul to comprehend at least in part the limits of this world.  But I do not get that sense of spiritual optimism from Dickinson.  Her fly seems colder, less certain, and melancholy.   Death is not feared, she expresses no anger or even a desire to hold on.   Where my optimism is a kind of idealism, a willingness to trust my feeling that there is something more, her melancholy is a realist one, recognition that there is no grounds for optimism other than hope and faith — and one gets the sense that she can arouse neither.  Or, perhaps, as soon as she feels a sense of hope, her realism dashes it.   The best hope that there is something more is from the fourth line of the poem — if she is between the heaves of storm, then perhaps there storm will continue.

She’s left with a thread of hope, battered and frayed, barely noticable, symbolized only by the buzz of a fly.

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