Thoughts on Aging and Death

Tim McMurdo and I worked together in the mid-1980s and have kept in contact, periodically, to this day. He has stayed in California; I have moved to Stockholm, Sweden.

Late last year Tim and his wife were on a Baltic Sea cruise and stopped in Stockholm for part of a day, so we met to look at each other, now thirty-five years since we first met. I had not yet met his wife, but we have been ‘friends’ on Facebook, so we were not strangers.

I have always enjoyed Tim’s way of perceiving and reacting to the world. It was a treat to be with him and his wife for several hours. We talked about “life, the universe, and everything,” before, during, and after lunch, until they departed.

Oaks on Bernal Hill, San Jose, California

Tim later sent this to me from California:

Ron,

Some thoughts on aging.

I’ve been thinking lately that the older I become the more life seems to be a dream, an illusion, like being unstuck in time. It passes and I don’t know where it has gone or whether I’ve really been there.

I recently looked at a slew of family pictures and saw the differences in all of us that have taken place so rapidly. We live in an extended moment but time collapses everything and we are not aware of how fast it takes place.

Pictures of Mom and Dad, Jim, Galen, Nana, Aunt Alice, Auntie Mim, Uncle Hal, Jan and Burke, Snoozie, all of those we loved, now gone. Weren’t they just here yesterday? Where did they go? Did they ever really exist? Do we exist?

I don’t feel like things have changed that much, but they have. My children are 27. I just held them at birth. This is not a dissociative reaction state. I am centered in person, place, and time. But somehow, I feel like we are hurtling toward some end—some final climax of life and I haven’t the slightest idea of what it has really meant.

I did my job in nature’s eyes. I leave two children in the world. Putting my genetic material into the future generation means I’m a howling success to nature. But as an individual, I’m not sure whether I really matter or whether a little piece of my consciousness will survive death. To nature, none of that matters.

Maybe our perceived ‘higher’ level of human existence is just a self-deception. Just a way to convince oneself to stay alive. And it takes living long enough and without day to day distractions like looking for a mate, navigating a marriage, raising and supporting a family, having a career, to realize there is really nothing external that gives our lives value.

With all of these gone now, I wonder what the purpose is?  Is there some level of spiritual enlightenment that we are now supposed to reach?  Some intuitive understanding of existence beyond our superficial acknowledgments of what a good life should be?  If so, how do we find it?  I’m not really sure.

Slainte and Happy New Year.

Ron to Tim

Tim, deep and worthy thoughts. What is reality, really?

May I post these ponderings, either for attribution or anonymously, in my “Being Old” blog?

Tim to Ron

Yes, of course, with or without attribution, ok by me.  I’m thinking more about these things although as you can see, I have no clear ideas about them. Just thinking.  Would appreciate your thoughts and perspectives as well.

But death is what I can’t make sense of.  Just for our lives to end, and that’s it?  Never to know that we even existed?

A paraphrased line between a Bolshevik revolutionary and a Russian nobleman in a novel I recently read goes like this: “Count Rostov, why are we afraid of the darkness? After all, from the darkness we came, and to the darkness we shall return”.

So simple, and just to accept those words would make our struggle to understand so much easier. That there is nothing, other than this sliver of light we come into and then leave, that life has no intrinsic value.  But, this is unsettling to me. I have some intuitive sense that it’s not that simple.  It’s much bigger than anything my feeble mind can understand so I trust myself to it. A childlike belief that there is something more. Probably wishful thinking but it makes me feel better. Just faith in some greatness of nature that is hidden behind a veil.

Interesting…  how similar our thoughts are about the relentless onslaught of time [I had included this poem in my email to him]. With it comes wisdom, humility, beauty, peace, and love of life. The clarity of mind compliments of the entropy of the body.

Well, Chris is calling me to go out and work in the yard. Back to reality.

Best,

Tim

Ron to Tim

Subject: Death, where there are no taxes

Tim,

A worthy subject, one I admit I think more about these days, but without any sense of dread, just impatience—so much yet to experience!

I read books which touch on the subject. D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and others who bring to us the Eastern way of looking at things. As Suzuki points out, we in the West are always engaged in subject/object, dualistic perceptions, and answers.  My growing perception is that there are no edges to anything, including ourselves, except by convention so we can move around in the world for our various purposes. Where do “I” physically begin and end? One nanometer beyond my skin? No, I say, and here is a metaphorical approach to the answer.

Take the great oak tree which has been “alive” for two hundred years. It was previously alive as an acorn that fell from an older tree. It will eventually fall and enrich the soil as it decomposes with the help of various smaller organisms, including the slime-mold, for which it is food, or lumber, or other useful stuff.

While it was “alive” It produced countless acorns, some of which successfully took root; most of the others became food for animals or the small, hungry organisms in the welcoming earth. While “alive” it shared its body and branches and leaves with other living things: birds, insects, mosses, fungi, some of which were in a symbiotic relationship with it.

Without taking this picture further, I see life as a continuum, not an either/or proposition. You are blessed to have participated in the creation of children. Other who don’t so create still have a role to play. Here’s an article I wrote that is somewhat congruent on the topic: The Holy Zygote.

Back to the “I” who will “die.” Who is this “I?” You know that Buddhists and others have a different view of this than do we westerners. Alan Watts asserts: “there is no ‘I’ which can be protected.”

I may write a haibun on the subject, using the oak as the focal point. Thanks for the stimulus.

Ron

Fallen oak, Bernal Hill

Advertisements

Brahms’s Requiem: “All Flesh is as Grass”

As I age I think more about death, especially as I see relatives and friends dropping away. I am blessed with good health and with genes that indicate continuing longevity, so I am not morbid about myself in these ruminations.

I still feel the absence of my father, my sister Diane, my life-long friend Fred Pape, and, quite recently, I thought of Uncle Harry (died in 1993)  whose oft-repeated phrase suddenly popped into my head at the proper occasion: “take it easy.” To indulge and assuage these thoughts and feelings I listen to music: most often Chopin and Grieg, occasionally Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff to evoke my mother.

I recently ‘discovered’ liturgical music, primarily the Mozart “Great” Mass in C Minor and his Requiem; and, the Stabat Mater of Pergolesi. Although I will never tire of them, I play them less often now, as I can conjure elements of each in my head when I wish. What I most recently have discovered that my favorite “classical” composer, Brahms, also wrote a requiem, about which more below.

einstein-visualized

A requiem is an act or token of remembrance. The word is from the Latin requies, ‘rest’, as in requiescat in pace—‘rest in peace’.

The “act or token” is most often conducted as a Christian ceremony in recognition of someone’s death (also groups of people).

The “act” in church is often accompanied by music written specifically for remembering the dead. In this setting, the requiem takes the form of a liturgical mass.

Simply stated a ‘requiem’ is an occasion to remember someone upon his or her death, and to wish her or him a peaceful “rest.”

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote a magnificent piece of music for such an occasion, Ein Deutsches Requiem (1868), “A German Requiem.” And, even though he used text from the Old and New Testaments of the Lutheran Bible (in German, not the traditional Latin, hence the “German” in the title), it was not written to be performed in church, although there is nothing to prevent this. Nowhere in the text of the vocal portion of the music is there mention of Jesus Christ as is required for a liturgical mass.

He did use “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” of chapter 3, verse 16 of the Gospel of John (King James Version cited here). But, as he told conductor Karl Reinthaler, “As far as the text is concerned, I confess that I would gladly omit even the word German and instead use Human; also with my best knowledge and will I would dispense with passages like John 3:16. On the other hand, I have chosen one thing or another because I am a musician, because I needed it, and because with my venerable authors [the Old and New Testaments] I can’t delete or dispute anything. But I had better stop before I say too much.” (Source).

Before discovering this piece, I was unaware that Brahms had written what could be termed ‘religious’ music. In researching this article I found he was not formally a religious man, but has been described as a ‘humanist,’ a term and concept I find almost abhorrent. I hasten to add I am not a member of any church or religion, and do not proselytize anything. I have written elsewhere on this, so will refrain from explaining further.

Nonetheless, I find that the second movement of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, “All Flesh is as Grass,” grabs me and moves me as well as any of the liturgical music mentioned above. I perceive Brahms having been inspired by a power greater than man, just as with Pergolesi, Bach, Mozart and countless others who have written liturgical and secular music.

Here is the translated text of the second movement of Ein Deutsches Requiem, “All Flesh is as of Grass” (Source):

1 Peter 1:24
For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.

James 5:7
Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandmen waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

1 Peter 1:25
But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.

Isaiah 35:10
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

The words speak for themselves. The music contains a death march, but ends in the glory indicated by the words.

einstein-visualized reversed.jpg

So, I think of those who have departed, immersed in music which celebrates death, becoming spent of sorrowful emotions and filled with strength for the journey which continues.

Intimations of Mortality

My sister Diane died on July 8 of this year, not quite two months ago. She was 68.

I am past the major grieving, I believe—several weeks have passed since my tears have welled up unexpectedly.

I may still be surprised by some sudden emotion, but there are now only persistent evocations of times shared with Diane, and of her forceful and positive spirit.

I no longer can forward to her a YouTube presentation of a popular singer or a clip from a TV comedy show of long ago, nor receive any from her. When I experience something that evokes a time we shared, I can no longer email or telephone to her about it.

She is really gone, but my sympathetic nervous system has not yet absorbed the fact of her permanent absence on this side of the great divide between life and death.

I have read and written and spoken occasionally on the subject of death, always in the abstract—for I haven’t yet experienced it, nor had anyone whose writing I have read.

With the extinguishing of Diane’s earthly presence so suddenly and completely, I feel closer to death. It is not as abstract to me as before.

When our parents died at advanced ages, these deaths were expected and even welcomed, for their last few years were difficult in each separate circumstance.

Not so with Diane’s death. She was younger than I by five- and-a-half years.

I have begun to imagine my spirit suddenly being extinguished. What can it be like? It is a very strange feeling or perception. Will the soul survive and, if so, in what manner?

I have known people who dwelt on the subject of death overly much in my view, or for my continuing interest. Will I now become such a person?

As I write this I wonder what lesson there may be in this new feeling or perception. What comes immediately to mind are the several aphorisms I have read and quoted, all tending toward this conclusion:

Death is always at your left hand (as Don Juan Matus remarked to Carlos Castaneda), so accept it and live life as this were your last moment.

Granddaughter Sydney learned a variant of this recently in Bible camp; she repeated it at the memorial we held for Diane in Sydney’s home.

To me this does not mean to become a pursuer of transient pleasures. Rather, it is to continue to act and build upon values that will have some lasting usefulness, at least for a few generations beyond.

I wrote the following during a low period, some 16 years ago:

Will It Be a Good Death?

When all the patterns close around me,
As my spirals play out all their energies,
When the sun no longer burns inside me,
And the waters cease coursing through me,
Will we cry good tears and say goodbye without regret?

Will it be a good death?

I pray it will be a good death
For the sake of my soul,
And the souls of my children, and of their children,
And of others who love me.

I pray my life will warrant a good death.

Will those with whom I am love-connected say,
“It was a good death: There was honor and completeness”?
Will they peacefully help my spirit to reunite with
The Great Everything?

To die a good death I must live a good life:
Be brave, be true, my soul;
Help me toward that good death.