When Nancy and I first walked through the front door of 68 Clemens Road, we both recognized that this was a place where we could host gatherings of friends and family–and we have done this for the past twenty years. Our wedding reception saw more than thirty people dancing around the May pole in our backyard. For many years we hosted Christmas parties for friends and family to gather for food, talk, singing and listening to stories. Smaller groups have gathered to share a meal under the magnolia tree in the spring and others have joined us for a cup of coffee by the big, picture window in winter. In short, we have enjoyed years of sharing our home with many guests.
Last spring, about this time, we had an uninvited guest show up at our door. Maybe better said, this guest slipped in the door when we were not expecting a guest. How do I describe the reality of having Death become a part of your life? Both Nancy and I remember thinking about the idea of death as a child. She tested positive for a rare illness and people speculated about this life threatening illness. I remember thinking at the age of six: ‘I better get started doing what I want to do in life because my time on earth will not last forever–someday I will die!’ I have always felt urgency about life and that may be the source of the anxiety that I have lived with much of my life.
Death is always part of our lives, especially if you come from a large family like mine. As a young child, I experienced the deaths of my grandparents, great uncles and aunts. I remember open caskets surrounded by flowers at a funeral home and family members saying things like: “I can’t believe he’s passed, but he’s gone to a better place.” Everyone seemed shocked that a seventy year old man had died. I never was. He looked old to me. We paid our respects and then gathered with family to eat and visit. I remember funerals as being a good time to play with your cousins at the old family farm.
The experience of death became more real and immediate for me when my father and mother died. Particularly, the death of my mother was most potent because I was with her when she died. But even then, I was a healthy sixty-six years old. I sang and talked to her through the process that lasted maybe five hours. After she died, I came home, talked, cried and drank several glasses of Irish Mist with Nancy. After her burial, I spent several weeks editing and sharing the journal I kept for the last years of my mother’s life…but my life went on.
So how is this present guest’s arrival at my front door different from past visits from the idea of death? After all, I did not get the diagnosis of cancer. It is Nancy who is dealing with the physical struggle to eat and monitor her bodily functions. Death has not come for me; again, it is someone else feeling the call. This sounds like I believe that I am going to live forever! No, I am fully aware that I could have a heart attack and die before Nancy. This writing is an attempt to live consciously the life I have been given to live; and for me, death is part of the life I have been given to live in the present.
When you grow old with one you love, you become more connected because you spend more time together. Nancy and I do not talk much during the day, but I am always aware of where she is in the house. I look forward– and often plan subjects for conversation– to the evening time when we share a meal–though this also has been changed by Nancy’s difficulty with eating. And, we always savor our time after the meal with a drink and conversation for an hour or more–and this too has been shortened some nights by Nancy not having a voice to carry on the conversation. Finally, every night we retire to the bedroom to read before falling asleep. We always sleep touching–if ever so lightly–and this has not been disturbed by the cancer. So, if Nancy does die before me, I will have to face a brutal reality of being left to face my death alone.
Can I talk about this reality and consciously accept that death is now a part of my life? It is not easy to grow old and die. Some have suggested that it is best to ignore death: exercise, continue with your work, travel, share life with your friends and family–as one storyteller friend, Charlotte Blake Alston, expresses it in a story, “just keep on, keepin’ on”. I do not think this approach to life will work for me. In my family of origin, that I described earlier, family members have tried to ignore death. As Christians, many believe in a life after death: “Oh death, where is thy victory? Oh death, where is thy sting?” (I Corinthians: 15:55) I do not want to disagree with this approach to dealing with death, but neither do I find solace in it. Instead, I find myself trying to muster the courage to invite death, as a reality, into my home, to invite death to sit by the big picture window with me, that we might talk and get to know each other.
How do I begin to engage death? Where did this idea of death originate? Some have suggested that it all starts with human consciousness, when humans became aware of themselves and the ego was born. Actually, you can argue that god was recognized about the same time–the Hebrew and Christian book of Genesis tell this story in the first two chapters. One of the most difficult lessons to learn in life is that there is a world that will go on without me. How can I accept that I am not eternal? Maybe I need to revisit the six year old me, the one who was encouraging himself to get started with life because he was not going to be here forever. Well I did that, I have lived a long life and I feel that I did what I was meant to do, to become who I was meant to be, not who others wanted me to be–thank you Grandpa Jung for this insight–but now my life is nearing an end. I want to find a way to welcome death into my life.
My life has been…I pause… I am not sure that what I am going to say is what I think and feel, but I will say it anyway…I have no need for truth and the right in my life. Understanding the process of living, and doing it, is more important than establishing a set of rules about it. I have enjoyed living on the shifting sands of life, not the solid rock of a theological or philosophical system. Life is being in the moment and interacting with the world around you. For me, this world is both practical/rational and intuitive/spiritual. An example of this approach to life is found in my journals as a young man:
Journal kept during my service in the Peace Corps, March 17, 1964, age 21, working in Dominican Republic with a rural community to build a two room school..”I am having the same problem with the school, no one wants to do the work….it doesn’t bother me anymore. I work when they are willing to work.” This is followed by a quote from Ernest Dimnet book, ‘The Art of Thinking’: “Mankind might be divided between the multitude who hate to be kept waiting because they get bored and the happy few who rather like it because it gives them time for thought.” Continuing on: “We cannot love God through fear and guilt: we must love God because there is a need for fulfillment and to become whole. God must help us find the wholeness that is lacking in us.” I might add that God must give us more than a promise of life after death. I have always enjoyed living on the boundaries between the practical and rational and the intuitive and spiritual. Life, for me, is always more about being than becoming!
This view of life has not always benefited or made life easy for me. In my twenties, I identified my interest in the spiritual with a career path in the Christian Church. What I did not understand was the need of most Christians to find answers, to find the truth and the right in life. These answers are provided in the ritual and dogma of a belief system, or the theology that explains the relationship between the human and the divine. My journey in life has focused on the joy and pain of asking questions and finding answers that never quite satisfy my curiosity. So I never come to answers that fit into a system of beliefs.
Intuitively, not rationally, I think I understood this in my late twenties– when I broke from the Church and started my career as a creator of stories, oral, visual, and written–that my life would be a struggle to balance the mysteries of life, not solve them with answers. The process of creating stories has been my way to understand life’s journey.
So how will I tell the story of Raymond Lowell Gray sitting by the big window with Death–an imagined character in one of my stories– and talking about life and coming to the end of it? I think it is best to set the scene by describing Raymond at different stages of life. Raymond was not a good sleeper as a child. The dark of night opened the door to things that threatened life. Pale light of the night slipped through the bedroom window suggesting an intruder. A shadow on the half open closet door, or the creak of a floor board suggested the advance of the intruder into his world. Raymond could retreat under the covers, but when a hiding place did not suffice, an escape was necessary. He would quietly get out of bed and tip-toe from his bedroom to that of his mother. He was not allowed into the parental bed, but he could curl up on the rug beside the bed until his fear of the intruder subsided.
As Raymond Lowell matured into a young man, his fear of the night intruder was replaced by fantasies of a different sort. Sexual energies grew in his body and the dark of night became his setting for exploring imagined relationships with the females of his world: mother, sister, and neighborhood friend. Soon these explorations took on a physical reality and he found hardness between his legs and a wet, sticky substance ejected from his penis in the midst of a half-dream fantasy.
Marriage and the responsibilities of finding a way in the world for many years reduced the terrors of the night. Sharing his bed with another, Raymond could reach out to and touch his wife when fear of the dark appeared. Having a mate helped to push back the shadows of night and provided some sense that he was not vulnerable in this world. Through a failed marriage, and three years alone, he managed to stave off the intruder by focusing on creating stories and finding a partner to again share his life. His second wife, for many years, shared her intimacy and her intellect to again help to stave off Raymond’s fears of the night.
This period of grace lasted until Raymond Lowell Gray arrived at the time when most retire from their world of promotion and begin to contemplate a time of reflection. It was in his mid-sixties that Raymond found his fear of the dark night returning, when the dark shadows and creaking of the floorboards sent signals of alarm and he felt the need to combat the intruder again. It was then that Raymond discovered an antidote by shifting his mind set from the world of dreams to the world of rational thought. He discovered, when his fear appeared, he need only get up, go out to the couch in the living room, by the big picture window, lie down and read for a period of time–blinds were bought to block the dark of night and its imagined source of fear.
So how do we put aside this game of life, this struggle with the darkness and all of the harm it seems to present to us? Raymond decided to invite the source of his fear into his life. Choosing a name was the first step. He decided to call his fear, his intruder, “Death”. One night he went out to the room with the big window. He did not bring a book to engage his rational powers. Instead, he purposely set about to create an atmosphere to engage the unconscious, to create a story, one where Death might feel welcome. He lite a single candle and set it on the coffee table before the window. The blinds were opened so that the dark of night melded with the dark of the room where the shadows created by the candle light danced about the bookshelves and furniture. Raymond purposely lay down on the couch in front of the window. He wanted to be both part of the shadows and yet exposed and vulnerable. Then he closed his eyes and began a meditation, or invitation, to the unconscious. Raymond invited his imagination to create a character he called Death that they might talk together about life.
Come, let us join this exploration of the unknown in the dark of night. It is mid-winter, neither cold nor warm, but with a mist that softens the bare-bone reality of the magnolia tree outside Raymond’s window. The boundaries between his conscious and unconscious, like the mist of the night, meld together and Raymond opens his eyes after a period of quiet meditation. Before him, he sees a figure sitting upright at the other end of the couch from his prone position. After seventy and more years of fearing an unwanted intruder to his night world, Raymond is heartened that he feels no fear. Though not hard and fast of flesh and sinew, the visitor is not devoid of humanity. Indeed, he looks much like a man Raymond observed in a church service that very day. He is dressed in blue-jeans and a sport shirt that fits tight around his robust belly–his arms are folded and his legs crossed. As he turns to face Raymond, there is warmth to his wrinkled smile that Raymond finds welcoming.
The visitor speaks softly, “Thank you for inviting me into your home this night.”
“I, I, I don’t know what to say”, responds Raymond without moving from his prone position. “I mean, I imagined something else, like in a Bergman movie, hooded, carrying the scythe, you know full of endings, not beginnings. I can’t think how to begin. What do I call you?”
Death stands up, his face toward the darkened window, his rounded body in profile, and says, “I would like to be called, Teacher; maybe even…Friend?”
Now Raymond slowly stands up and looks out of the window as he gathers himself to converse with Death. Without turning to his visitor, he begins to speak: “Since childhood, I have thought of death as a positive, not a negative influence in my life. I mean, I think of it as a kinda ‘kick in the pants’ to remind me that life is not eternal. We should have purpose, things we want to do in this life. So, I guess in some ways I do think of you as my teacher!”
“And have you found that purpose”, inquires Death?
An answer is not immediate, Raymond Lowell and his new friend stand like two travelers on the bow of a ship at sea and they stare into the misty night outside the big window.
Again, without assurance, Raymond responds, “Yes, I think I have. I mean, I have not found great material success in life–no fame or wealth. I have a friend who says that success comes when your purpose matches the purpose of the larger society…I have always felt that I am out of step with the world around me. I am an outsider; nevertheless, I have found purpose in my creative work.”
“Your world of story”, says Death.
“Yes”, says Raymond, “creating stories gives me a way to discover my purpose in life. As I have grown older, this pursuit has taken on a spiritual element. The writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, describes it this way: “God made us as grubs, by our effort we become butterflies!”
“Ah God”, says Death, “interesting that you bring up Him or Her, however you choose your human metaphor. God has goaded me from the beginning of human consciousness.
“I can understand”, says Raymond, “you have represented the negative as opposed to the positive of the divine. But, as I said, I have always found a positive in the idea of death, the goad to find my purpose in life. Perhaps the way to contemplate existence is to not use terms like positive and negative; I like to think of it as a balance of opposites.
Death sighs, “Easier said than done, but I have not come this dark night to seek counsel. I am here to help you confront your fear of the unknown.”
Now it is Raymond Lowell’s turn to sigh as he contemplates a response. “I guess, maybe, I fear a loss of control. I mean, all of my life I have been careful about the details of the day as well as the night. Before going to bed, I close the window blinds. I check the locks on all of the doors. I prepare for the intruder…but I am growing old, no, I am old. I cannot keep you, Death, from coming into my life, to complete the negative part of your mission.”
Death smiles, “I agree that the problem is related to the idea of control, but control is not all bad–hence your idea of balancing opposites–the Christian idea of grace provides a balance. If control means that you always have to be right, then it is negative. It is a bad way to live your life. Grace offers the opportunity that you can be wrong and start over again. It makes control less arbitrary and therefore your life is free to explore and discovery new ways of living.”
“That is all fine and good for the young in life, but I am old. I am facing the end of my life”, says Raymond. “Like most humans I have no imagination to contemplate a world without me, me, me! I exaggerate a bit to make my point.”
With meaningful nod of his head, Death responds, “Yes, yes, ‘me’ has its place in your human psyche also. But using your idea of opposites, can we not say that the opposite of me” is “you”, and the balance between them is the idea of “love”. Your experience and understanding of your love for your wife, Nancy, softens and dilutes the “me” in you, if that makes any sense to you. The same is true of love for the divine, for your neighbor, even your enemy; and yes, even your love of death! Love helps balance the scale between you and me.” The last words soften and seem to float away on the night air as Death points to Raymond and looks directly at him.
Now, it is Raymond who turns and smiles as he looks into the eyes of Death, “I have one, last question for you. I am not sure how to say this…I have felt guilty much of my life because I cannot find meaning in the sacred stories of the Christian Church, the spiritual tradition of my ancestors. Can you help me understand my rebellion?”
Without a word of consolation, Death answers: “You live in a world of stories. Your Christian tradition tells the story of human consciousness coming into being through the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil–notice the opposites–and Eve first tasted this fruit. And, this act of Eve, also introduces to the story my role as Death. My point here is that humans have always created stories to explain the world in which they live. Today, in this world, another story is more popular. It is the story that science tells about the evolution of life on this planet. My suggestion, Raymond Lowell Gray, is that you are free to create and tell the story as it fits your time in life. This may cause pain and you may feel alone, but that is the right and duty of every creator of story. You are Eve. You have a right to reach up and take down a fruit from your own tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
“So is this the source of my fear of the night? And perhaps, the reason l try to control the world I inhabit?”, ponders Raymond.
“It is all story”, says Death. “All humans unconsciously know that they live in an imperfect state, outside the Garden of Eden, and they wish to return. Some ignore this reality and isolate themselves in their conscious state of human reason spiced by emotions. Others recognize the unconscious and their intuitive powers, but they look for answers to help them cope with this other reality. They find support and answers in a system of belief, a religion that allows them to be part of a community of believers. Then, my friend, there are those who strike out alone, who choose to create their own destiny. Often they end up with more questions than answers and this breeds insecurity, fear and anxiety–as you well know.”
“Hmmm”, ponders Raymond.
“Don’t quote me on that when you come before your Maker”, says Death. “As you well know, humans often need a mix of approaches to discover the balance that works for them.”
Outside Raymond sees that the mist has disappeared and a full moon now illuminates the shape of the magnolia tree. He senses a moment of clear-light understanding and turns to thank Death for sharing with him… but his teacher, like the mist of the dark night, has disappeared from the consciousness of Raymond Lowell Gray.
So ends the first lesson for one human soul who seeks to reconcile the conscious and the unconscious, the human and the divine in us all.