I’m in the middle of the moonlit Pacific Ocean, about 6 hours from Auckland, another 6 to Vancouver. We’re at the level of the clouds, looming silvery and puffy over a calm sea. From my rectangle window I see the plane wing, blinking and illuminating the Air New Zealand koru in 2 second blips. I see stars, glowing and endless, galaxies spinning away from me, time and matter rippling and bursting and dying and all we see is their light, centuries later. I see the black, shining water, glossy over the curve of the earth, hidden now and again by these gigantic clouds. And us…this tiny metal plane, the few hundred breathing passengers, my sister shifting and napping beside me.
My breath fogs up the window as I press my forehead to the glass and take in all this enormity. We are so insignificant. We are a blip, as brief as the blinking light on the wing. I like feeling so small.
Rewind 10 days earlier and I’m cuddled up in bed on a Saturday morning with my oldest friend (“We’re birthmates!” we used to exclaim loudly to people). It’s a sunny, hot New Zealand morning, bringing a day of ocean swimming, delicious food, liquorice tea and craft beer.
But, for now, it’s just the two of us and we’re talking about death.
You see, I have a THING about death. And I think this thing started by a well-timed combination of two incidents: a brush with my own and a comfort-busting philosophical statement.
These incidents happened within 4 months of each other in 2014. I spent the year in a yoga teacher training programme, which in general are pretty excellent at smashing comfortable stories you may have about the world and your place in it. On our reading list was an innocent looking paperback book called Buddhism Without Beliefs, by former monk Stephen Batchelor. Reading it on a spring day in my garden, I was hit with this sentence:
Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?
This seared into my brain, the full recognition of this certainty/uncertainty. Yes, of course we’re all going to die. That is the only thing we can say with certainty about life. Yes, of course no one knows when that will be. But up until that point, I had never really THOUGHT about it. I had never welcomed death into my mind, pondered it. It was suddenly there, and it wasn’t leaving.
To compound this, in late summer, sitting in the back seat of a car in the Yukon with 2 friends and their dog, we hit some loose gravel. As is the case with road accidents, the entire thing was probably less than a minute from start to finish and all I remember is this complete feeling of calm as we lost control and started spinning on the road. This American Life was playing, no one was screaming, the dog and I looked at each other and all I can remember thinking was: “This could be it. And I have no control”. We flipped, rolled, and landed upside down in the ditch.
The dog crashed into my head, I reached down to the roof with my hands, feeling the blue gel that had leaked out of a smashed ice-pack from the cooler behind me and very calmly we asked each other if we were okay. Yes, yes, yes. I undid my seatbelt, lowered/fell to the roof and crawled out an open window (dog included). We stood there reeling, staring at the upturned car, our belongings thrown into trees and This American Life still playing.
Later, when we got back to town, it hit me: this is how fragile we are. This is how quickly we can die. This is how uncertain life is. This is what Buddhism Without Belief means.
These experiences embedded in my day to day thoughts. I pondered death as I walked to the subway. I thought about it as I spent time with my friends, my sister, my boyfriend. As I skyped my family. As I got into any car. I wasn’t viewing death through a calm, philosophical, “carpe diem” lens. I was terrified. Every time I said goodbye to someone I loved, I imagined it being the last time. Because, of course, it could be.
My anxiety around death also had an added intensity to it, because so many of the people I love live in a different hemisphere. My parents, my oldest friends, my huge extended families, my Oma. It was tortuous to think that they could all die at any moment, and I wouldn’t even be in the same country as them. Things reached a peak when my family were planning a trip – we were all flying to meet in Hawaii. I was incredibly excited to see everyone, and this was matched with total worry about all the ways we could die getting too and from Hawaii. Let’s just say there were a lot of very complex feelings on the flights there and back.
Soon after this trip, I started imagining ways to bring everyone I loved into a small village, protect them, and make sure we were all together all the time so when someone did die, everyone would all be there. In a tearful, worried night I sobbed all of this to my partner, who calmly stroked my hair and let me talk and talk and talk.
This is when I realized that a) I wasn’t quite co-existing with the idea of death in a healthy way, b) I couldn’t live with this level of anxiety and c) I sounded a bit nuts.
In all of this however, I knew I didn’t want to go back to how I was living before, not thinking about death and pretending it didn’t exist. I didn’t want to live ignoring something that is so present in human life, so imminent for all of us. So, because I like talking about feelings, I started talking about death more often: with my partner, my sister, my parents, and then my friends.
And something started happening…the more I talked about it, and asked for other’s perspectives on death, the more the worry grip loosened. I started meditating on death, on the question Batchelor was asking in the first place: “what should I do?” It seemed at that point that all I could do was sit with the fear that everyone I love is going to die, and be honest with myself about how scary that felt.
As I investigated death more, I had 2 really illuminating conversations. One, was with my partner. We were talking about the fact that I haven’t experienced anyone close to me die before, and he wondered if I was afraid of the grief that would accompany death. I’ve been turning this over in my mind since he said this and I think there’s something there. Part of my fear is the strength of emotion that I predict will accompany death and loss, potentially a type of emotion that I haven’t experienced at that level before. I’m scared about how I’ll cope. I’m scared about how it’s all going to feel.
The second illuminating conversation takes us right back to the beginning of this post. Lying in bed with my girlfriend, on a sultry Saturday morning. She’s experienced a fair amount of death in her life, and – as unrelated as it is related – has a beautiful wisdom to her. I was telling her about my upcoming flight back to Canada, where I would once more be far away from my family, and feeling worried people would die while I was away. My friend, whose family is spread far and wide around the world said to me: “But, it’s not being there for the moment of death that is the most important. Of course, if you can, if someone is dying and you can get back in time that can have an element of comfort to it. More important is your relationships: all the precious, meaningful, good times you have with these people in your life.”.
Hearing this, and thinking more about it has been my turning point. I find this so comforting. 10 days later, when I left New Zealand, it wasn’t as scary as I was anticipating. Because I knew that in my 2 months here, I’d filled my time with love and appreciation for my family, my old friends. I’d spent time with people feeling grateful for their alive-ness, and appreciating every moment (even the things that would usually drive me up the wall. Even the things that DID drive me up the wall!).
Fast-forward once more to 6 hours into that flight above the Pacific, I imagined silvery lines of my love, extending out from my heart to all my people in New Zealand, in Canada, in England and Holland and Australia, Germany and the US. Every day I hold my love for all of these people, happy memories, meaningful time together, and life of relating.
Yes, we’re all going to die. Yes, we have no idea when. And yes, we’re all just insignificant blips in the life cycles of the ocean, stars and curve of the earth, all of which experience life and death without any fuss.
To return to Batchelor’s provocation, what am I going to do? At the moment I feel more okay about death than I have in a long time. I’m learning to respect the uncertainty of life. I’m learning what thinking about death daily feels like, and gradually being okay with that. I’m appreciating my relationships, hard.
And..perhaps most excitingly…I’m discovering that an appreciation for death offers me a totally in-the-present appreciation for life RIGHT NOW.
Shit you guys, we’re alive! Woah!