Thinking about death: “What’s Left?” September 2018, MRR #424

I light candles for the people in my life who’ve died. It comes from my Catholic upbringing, and any opportunity I get to visit a church with a votive stand—whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or even Buddhist—I light candles. But it doesn’t have any spiritual meaning beyond ritual. There’s no “I’m spiritual but not religious” bullshit for me. I’m a recovering Catholic striving for atheism on a good day. On a bad day I’m a feeble agnostic.

My parents were never really churchgoing. When my sister and I were up for the childhood sacraments of penance, communion, and confirmation we had to go to Sunday School, learn the catechism, and attend mass. But after receiving them my parents no longer required church participation of us. When my mom got small cell lung cancer, my dad started attending mass again, praying for a miracle. After a course of chemo, one night my mom got into the family car, drove to an unknown house, knocked on the door, asked if my father was there, then drove home when she learned he wasn’t. A month and a half after she died of the cancer, my dad died of a heart attack. Despite my irreligion, I’m haunted by John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. […] I go to prepare a place for you.”

The meaning of life is that it stops.
—Franz Kafka

My parents died in their 60s. Having gone through the second World War, their respective families in Poland were decimated. So the death of my uncle, aunt, and niece in Chicago virtually eliminated the American side of my family. My wife’s parents died in their 80s, although her extended family remains quite large. Now that I’m 65, many of my friends and acquaintances are around my age or older and I’m having to attend more and more funerals and memorials. We hosted a memorial in April for a friend of my wife who she knew for over 40 years.

But I’ve been lucky. I wasn’t born and raised in poverty, or with daily domestic violence, or in a war zone, so the death of people close around me wasn’t a regular occurrence. Throughout my schooling I personally knew maybe three individuals my age who died. The last was David Pickett, a UCSD student who was one of the most active members of an independent Leftist student newspaper called “The New Indicator” to which I belonged. He was also a drinking buddy of mine. In researching San Diego politics from 1979 to 1981 for a recent column in various UCSD digital archives (MRR #419), I came across details of his death. He “was injured in a road accident while vacationing in Mexico over the Spring break. It was a long drive to the nearest hospital, but he was still alive when he arrived. The hospital, however, was a private one and David was refused treatment because his ability to pay was in question. En route to a public hospital he died.” The description of David’s death concluded with the comment that his life “just wasn’t as important as the profit column in the hospital ledger.”

The article concluded with an angry rant against capitalism. People die every day in car accidents, factories, wars, and being “turned away from hospitals all the time in the U.S., in Mexico, everywhere in the world where hospitals must yield a profit.” “Our system maximizes profit; and profit and human welfare are two very different things. […] We remember David; we don’t think he had to die. Those who agree with us should help us oppose the system that prefers profit to life.” (https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb0239978w/_1.pdf) Forty years later, I chose to remember David Pickett’s death by crafting his life into a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” as a longish short story that I then converted into a prequel to my science fiction novel, 1% Free. Such are the advantages of fiction over fact in capturing truths not immediately evident in reality.

Being alone, reading voraciously, writing this memoir, I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I believe the constant, underlying thought of all men who think must be of their own death, no matter what the surface thought might be. When they think of living, they are also thinking of death, for the two are mingled.
And thinking is a curse.
—Edward Bunker, No Beast So Fierce

The three things I’ve been most interested in as an adult—politics, writing, and rocknroll—all have a higher-than-average mortality rate. Practicing politics can lead to an early grave under authoritarian regimes, or in the US if you have the wrong skin color and are a particularly effective leftist activist. Such was the case with Malcolm X, Bobby Hutton, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton, and scores more. Writers experience a greater incidence of early death thanks to their propensity for substance abuse due either to the mistaken belief it’s a necessary part of the creative process or to overall depression from thinking too much. My list of great alcoholic writers includes Jack London, Earnest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson, but it would almost be easier to enumerate those writers who didn’t drink themselves to death. Unlike my ineffectual political activism or my alcohol abuse however, I’ve never been more than a fan of rocknroll. I was never a musician. I never played an instrument or was part of a band.

The youth lifestyle and culture associated with rocknroll music also kills more people than the wife-two-kids-a-dog-and-a-house-in-the-suburbs middle-class life to which most normies aspire. Jim Carroll made that the subtext of his song “People Who Died;” heavily cribbing its Catholic sensibilities from Ted Berrigan’s poem of the same name with its final line “My friends whose deaths have slowed my heart stay with me now.” In turn, the band Detention had fun skewering the infamous 27 Club meme in “Dead Rock and Rollers.” It was mere coincidence when Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix all died of drug overdoses at 27 years old, but it seemed like a genuine curse when Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse joined their ranks. “And what about you, Jim Carroll?/All your friends have/What are you waiting for?” Detention asked in 1983, with Carroll eventually joining those dead rockers in 2009.

We are ignoring the fact that bringing death to the level of consciousness is an important element of mental health . . . Hagakure insists that to ponder death daily is to concentrate daily on life. When we do our work thinking that we may die today, we cannot help feeling that our job suddenly becomes radiant with life and meaning.
—Yukio Mishima, The Way of the Samurai

I’ve had a dozen risky close-to-death experiences and a couple of health crisis incidents in my life that made me suddenly aware I was alive, and glad to be alive. But there needs to be some other way to value life than to flirt with death.

Paul Haller, the abbott of the San Francisco Zen Center, once advised me in a private consultation to “meditate on death” as a way to appreciate life. By the way, that very same attitude toward death is why Zen was the religion of the Samurai, why Japan’s Zen denominations wholeheartedly supported the Emperor throughout WWII, and why zen mindfulness is used as therapy for PTSD by the US military. Because it’s also part-and-parcel of the Zen attitude toward the military, taking life, war, and the like. That’s a subject for a future column however. I’ll have turned 66 by the publication of this column, and thinking about death has become frequent. I’m by nature an introverted, introspective person who frequently thinks about my life, what I have and haven’t done, and what my dwindling future holds. My loved ones, friends, frenemies, and enemies are all getting old and infirm. Some have already died. So, given that I’m also a little OCD, meditating on death has become a daily occurrence.

Our white, mainly Protestant society doesn’t deal well with death and dying. We have no dominant ceremonial holidays like the festive Mexican Catholic Dia de los Muertos or the somber Jewish Yom Kippur and few personal rituals like my candle lighting practice to comfort us. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die” according to that popular country western song lyric. But in not believing in heaven, what I’m left with is not wanting to die. I haven’t made up my mind whether thinking about death helps me feel more alive or that thinking itself is a curse. “And who shall I say is calling?”

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