Category Archives: On Death and Dying

On Letting Go.

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Last week I went and saw Celeste and Jesse Forever in the theater by myself. I do that sometimes, so there’s no need to feel sorry for me. This movie was really fascinating, because even though it was marketed as an indie dramedy, it struck me as a potent case study in breaking up and letting go. A brief synopsis: Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have been married for six years, but as they both approach 30, Celeste decides that they should get divorced. All of their friends are weirded out because even after being separated for six months, Celeste and Jesse still live together and hang out together all the time as if getting divorced wasn’t a big deal, to which they reply that they’re still best friends even though their marriage is over, and why shouldn’t they still hang out? That line of thinking works great until Jesse starts dating another woman pretty seriously, at which point Celeste struggles to hide her palpable jealousy and starts questioning whether or not she made a mistake in asking for a divorce. Much drama and hilarity ensue.

Maybe this wasn’t the intention of the filmmakers at all, but throughout the entirety of the film, the question that kept returning to the forefront of my mind was “Why is it so hard to let go?” In the beginning of the film, we see Jesse struggle to let go of the slim possibility that Celeste will change her mind and call off the divorce, and once he starts dating someone else, Celeste can’t let go either, even though she’s the one who wanted a divorce in the first place. Are we all crazy people for not being able to let go? Yes and no, probably. Obviously I am no expert on such things, but watching my friends go through break-ups and surviving a monster break-up myself, there are certain things I’ve observed that seem particularly Truthy.

One, change is hard for a lot of people, and even more than that, oftentimes it’s even harder to accept the permanence of the decisions you make that act as a catalyst for change. When you break-up with someone or divorce someone, usually that decision lasts forever. But what if you made the wrong decision? What if your life with this person is as good as it’s going to get? What if you never love another person as much as you love this person, or worse, what if you never find another person who loves you like this person does? If that turns out to be true, then you will have no one to blame but yourself, and no one wants to have to live with the knowledge that they have ruined their own life. When Celeste starts second-guessing herself and her decision to get divorced, she turns into a crazy person who does crazy desperate things in an attempt to hold onto the relationship that she’s afraid will slip out of her grasp. Why not just let go? Because letting go is forever, and the reality of forever is scary.

Two, there is a comfort in the familiarity of a relationship that is hard to imagine living without. When you’re with someone for a long time, you take for granted how much of your life is shared and how much your significant other informs your identity, and then when you break up, you have to rediscover who you are as an individual and relearn how to live your life alone. I can tell you from experience, that is the worst. And if that thought alone isn’t enough to keep you hanging on, just think about the agony of jumping back into dating again. Early in the movie when one of Jesse’s friends tells him he should start dating, Jesse says “Maybe I just don’t want to start over with someone new.” Years of work go into the foundation of a lasting relationship, from allowing yourself to truly know (and be known by) another person to accumulating layers of memories and inside jokes and shared experience, and when that relationship ends, it feels like all that work was for nothing. The mere thought of starting from square and attempting such an intensive and laborious undertaking with another person seems a positively insurmountable task.

Strangely enough, as I was driving home from this movie, “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley came on the radio, which, aside from being truly one of the greatest songs ever (D HEN 4 LYFE), is an amazingly poignant song about the struggle to let go. The song begins with imagery that reflects the speaker’s aloneness, from “empty lakes, empty streets” to “the sun goes down alone,” and then launches into that heartbreaking line “I’m driving by your house / though I know you’re not home.” He knows that “those days are gone forever” and that he should just let them go, but in spite of himself, he’s living in memories, not simply remembering but seeing his ex’s “brown skin shining in the sun” and her way of “walking real slow and / smiling at everyone.” It’s such a beautiful song, and it totally puts a lump in my throat every time I hear it.

It also, I think, hammers home the point that much of the difficulty of letting go is a signifier of real care. It wouldn’t be so hard to do if the person or relationship you’re trying to let go of didn’t mean something you. It’s like the five steps of the grieving process: you have to mourn, to work through your anger and fear and confusion, to honor what was once but is no longer, and accept the loss in order to move on with your life in peace. That’s the point of letting go, I think. Not to pretend that it never happened or to always feel regret, but to find a way to be at peace with loss. That probably sounds very zen, but it’s certainly easier said than done.

The Museum of Broken Relationships.

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As the majority of the flights that I made within Europe were on EasyJet, I got into the habit of reading their in-flight magazine (which is great, incidentally) cover to cover. One of the most fascinating things I read about? The Museum of Broken Relationships.

Conceptualized by Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, the museum began as a traveling exhibition that explored failed relationships through their tangible remnants, the objects that came to mean something greater than themselves in the context of a relationship. As the exhibition gained popularity, hordes of people began donating personal belongings from their own broken relationships, and the collection that began to amass necessitated a permanent museum location, which is situated in Zagreb, Croatia. According to the museum’s website, these exhibits, “although often colored by personal experience, local culture and history… form universal patterns offering us to discover them and feel the comfort they can bring.”

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I’ve been perusing some of the items in the exhibits and many of them are accompanied by an explanation from the person who donated them. One man who donated an ax recounts how he used it to chop up the belongings that his ex had left behind in their shared apartment, one each day for two weeks, and how he kept the chopped up bits and arranged them into neat little piles for when she returned to retrieve them. Another donor recounts throwing a garden gnome at the new car her husband came home in, how it bounced off the windshield and onto the ground, “a long loop, drawing an arc of time – and this short long arc defined the end of love.” The explanation that accompanies a donated cell phone simply reads: “It was 300 days too long. He gave me his cell phone so I couldn’t call him any more.”

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Isn’t it fascinating how otherwise unimportant objects can become imbued with so much meaning when they’re connected to a relationship? The MoBR’s website briefly refers to these objects as ruins, but I think that’s a really powerful characterization of what the objects represent. I keep thinking about Rome and how there are ruins everywhere, monuments made from the remaining fragments of things that were once beautiful and imposing and important. If these objects are ruins, then these ruins are almost paying homage to the relationship, acknowledging that it was once beautiful and imposing and important even though it isn’t anymore. It seems like a powerful and ceremonious way to honor the importance of relationships even after they’re broken, and to overcome the pain of loss through artistic creation. I hope I’m able to see this museum someday.

Want to donate something to the Musuem of Broken Relationships? You can do so here!

A (Sort Of) Near-Death Experience.

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Have you ever been in a situation where you felt certain you were going to die? And not like a situation where death would be instantaneous, like an almost-car accident, but where you can see it approaching from a distance, slowly but with resolve, and all you can do is wait for it?

I had one of those moments yesterday. As I was preparing the kids’ lunches yesterday morning, I hit my head really hard on the corner of the cupboard. I saw stars, and blackness started creeping in from the sides. Minutes later, there was a huge knot forming on my head. For the rest of the day, my head ached and every time I tried to touch the knot it made me feel like I was going to be sick. I have a tendency to bump my head on things, and whenever I do, I think about Natasha Richardson and it makes me paranoid. But this is the first time that paranoia quickly became palpable and paralyzing fear that I was going to fall asleep and never wake up.

You know how when someone has a near-death experience, they say that their whole life flashed before them? As I was lying in bed last night, trying (unsuccessfully) to convince myself that I wasn’t going to die, I had one of those life flashes, except it was more like a drive-by: it was like I was cruising along my life’s timeline, watching events and milestones pass by me at 30 mph, slow enough to see it all clearly but too fast to be able to do anything but wave as I continue on. I thought about amazing things I had done and seen, and amazing people that I had shared life experiences with, and my whole life as I had lived it thus far became a memory that I looked on with great fondness. And somehow that was comforting, and I was able to fall asleep unafraid.

Needless to say, I didn’t die (even though I think I’m likely concussed). But today, as I reflect on last night, I’m amazed that I only looked backward instead of forward. Thoughts like “I’ll never get to have kids if I don’t wake up” or “If I die, I won’t get to see the rest of Europe like I had planned” didn’t enter my mind; there was no part of me that felt cheated at not being able to continue doing things or seeing things or living. I was only bursting with gratitude that, during a time when I was deeply and insurmountably afraid, I had beautiful experiences and people to remember and draw comfort from. And maybe that’s why people get life flashes when they think they’re about to die: because death is the ultimate unknown and it’s terrifying, so the brain conjures these familiar images, these things and people that you’ve known, as a way to ease that fear, to calm you before all the lights go out. Maybe our brains are hard-wired for kindness in that regard.

I’m not sure how to conclude this, as I’m not sure what point I was trying to make by writing this, except to share something that felt profound to me. So I’ll just say I’m happy that I’m alive, and more than that, I’m happy I’ve lived.

Night Float.

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While I was in Buena Vista last month, I did a lot of rafting. A LOT. As in, I went on five rafting trips in the span of three days. The second of my five rafting trips was a night float, and it was an incredibly surreal experience that I want to try to put down in writing so as not to forget how profound it was.

As far as I can tell, night floats are fairly common within the raft guide culture (which is another topic all together), and what happens is that when the moon is full, it sheds enough light on the water to be able to navigate the river at night. I felt a little apprehensive about the idea of a night float, purely because in the 48 hours that I had been in BV, I had discovered that when raft guides go through their initial training, they learn how to “read” the river, and once they know how to do that, they’re able to guide a raft full of unexperienced hooligans through the river’s rapids skillfully and generally without causing personal injury to anyone. Once I had already committed to participating in the night float, I started thinking “How can you read a river when you can’t see clearly?” I thought my fears were realized when the moon was obstructed by clouds for half of our trip, but the human eye is very adroit at adjusting to the dark, and while we couldn’t see perfectly clearly, we weren’t rafting blind, either.

The night float created a really strange and conflicted feeling inside of me. On one hand, I was terrified because this was only my second time rafting, and the waves that I had seen during the day seemed one hundred times more ominous and frightening in the near-pitchblack night. But on the other hand, my entire raft consisted of raft guides who had navigated the river hundreds of times before, and even though I had only met them the day before, I somehow trusted them. Two guys, Adam and Curt, took turns guiding, and their approaches were very different: Adam had a really intense energy and was a little terse in his rafting commands, whereas Curt was very laid back and never seemed ruffled even in the most daunting rapids. I felt safe with them, but I was still uneasy.

Going down the rapids in the dark was one of the most visceral experiences I’ve ever had: it was like a perfect marriage of beauty and terror. In spite of the huge dark glassy waves, the river was absolutely gorgeous and I was in constant awe of its personality, as if it were a human communicating with us. It was almost spiritual in that regard. But there was also not a single moment where I wasn’t thinking “I could die doing this.” As the other people in my raft continued to banter and high-five each other on a successful run of the rapids, I found myself growing quieter and quieter to the point of complete silence, because I was feeling so many emotions simultaneously but had no idea what I was actually feeling. It was a very strange sensation.

All of which is to say: I’m 100% glad that I went on the night float, and I think I would probably do it again if I had the opportunity. My description of what was going on internally for me during the trip probably sounds really scary and like I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have. I think in the moment it was really overwhelming to feel everything all at once, but in the aftermath I felt like I had experienced a profound catharsis, like I went through something intense and came out better on the other side. All in all I’d say it was a supremely positive experience, and if you ever have the chance to go on a night float, I’d tell you to do it in a heartbeat.

Love and the Apocalypse.

I went to see Sufjan Stevens perform at the Paramount on Saturday night, and it was a pretty incredible experience. I saw him the last time he played in Seattle in 2006 and it was totally magical: he had a giant band with him onstage complete with a full string section, and everyone was wearing wings and it was very mellow. This time, however, it was more of wholly sensory experience, with lots of visual effects and choreographed dancing. Very different from what I expected, but still amazing.

Between songs, Sufjan explained the inspiration for his new album and why it’s so sonically different from anything else he’s done before, and pointed out the threads of heartbreak and madness and the apocalypse that run through Age of Adz. And he made a joke about it (he’s surprisingly funny), saying that he felt there was no healthier way to view love sickness than through the standardization and mythology of end times.

I know it was a joke, but I think there’s something profound in that statement. I’ve been thinking for the past couple days about relationships and the emotions that so often accompany their end, how easy it is for one to view the dissolution of a relationship as the end of the world. It makes sense: when you’re with someone, you’re creating a life that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. You do things differently and view things differently, want different things, expect different things, pursue different things when you’re with someone as opposed to being alone. And the beginning of a relationship is like the beginning of life, like birth, in that you start with nothing and then grow and learn as a person, with another person. It’s the creation of an entire world that you inhabit as if there were nothing else. So when it ends, it really is like the end of the world because it’s the end of your world, the world that you’ve made and invested in and loved.

And if that’s true, then ending a relationship and moving forward with your life is like a rebirth. It’s a chance to start fresh, forge something new, wipe your slate clean. But if you’re on the powerless end of a break-up, if you’re the one being broken up with, a clean slate is not appealing. It doesn’t feel like the positive rebirth that it should be; it feels more like purgatory, or a holding cell. It feels like a prolonged apocalypse. There is so much fear in facing the unfamiliar because the life you’ve known is ending and you’re forced to reinvent yourself as a single person, alone. But as Belle & Sebastian sing, “Forward’s the only way to go.” In the midst of the crumbling edifice that you’ve constructed to be your life, you can only keep living and keep trying to be alive.

So begins my apocalypse.

Death According To Sparks.

“Granny Green has gone,” said Miss Taylor.
“Ah yes, I noticed a stranger occupying her bed. Now what was Granny Green?”
“Arterio-sclerosis. It affected her heart in the end.”
“Yes, well, it is said we are all as old as our arteries. Did she make a good death?”
“I don’t know.”
“You were asleep at the time,” he said.
“No, I was awake. There was a certain amount of fuss.”
“She didn’t have a peaceful end?”
“No, not peaceful for us.”
“I always like to know,” he said, “whether a death is a good or bad one. Do keep a look out.”
For a moment she utterly hated him. “A good death,” she said, “doesn’t reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul.”
Suddenly he hated her. “Prove it,” he said.
“Disprove it,” she said wearily.
— Muriel Spark, Memento Mori

the delicate human body.

i usually don’t like to write too in depth about my personal life, but i’ve spent a good portion of the past two days visiting my grandfather at the hospital, and it’s been a very surreal experience.

i’ve never spent much time in a hospital, either to visit someone or because i was sick or injured. hospitals, more than any other place i’ve been, are so quiet and nervous and cold. my grandfather was in the icu, and when i walked into his room, he was sleeping; with what seemed like great labor, his chest moved up and down, breathing in and out. he had tubes in his nose; needles stuck into the flesh of his arms, connected by tubes to the audience of machinery that surrounded him, clicking and humming; straps, like the ones that grocery store to test your blood pressure, around his legs that pumped air to squeeze his calves and keep his blood from clotting; a bag half-full of bright yellow urine hanging from a hook on the side of his bed. it was all i could do to keep from crying, seeing his body so frail and aged. he was disoriented from the pain medication, kept falling asleep in mid-conversation and mumbling sentence fragments unconsciously.

never before have i been so aware of how delicate the human form is. when i saw him, i thought “this is the closest i’ve ever been to death.” my grandfather is in good health, active for his age, and yet there he was lying in a hospital bed, completely inert, weak, pricked and monitored like a science project. he took good care of himself, and his body still had to be aided with medicine and machines when it had been pushed a little too far.

it just reminds me of how much we take our bodies for granted: our bodies can do magical things, like push out a small human form into the living breathing world, lift the dead weight of an automobile in the right circumstances and with the right amount of adrenaline, naturally process the food we put into it, endure cuts and kicks and chemical exposure with fierce resilience; and yet, our bodies are not invincible. they are made of matter that can be crushed, sometimes to a pulp. i think of all the damage we inflict upon our bodies, for reasons cosmetic or psychological or unknowing, and how we don’t treat always treat them with the quiet wonder that we should if we truly understood how transient their animation is.

my point is that we need to have consideration toward the body, sensitivity to its limitations and embrace of its magnificence. we only get one body (unless you believe in incarnation), and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. all we can do is be good to our bodies, so much as we have power to do so, and hope that goodness will reverberate for as long as possible.