In the last few years I been making friends with death—with the idea of death, I should say, for how could I ever know what it is before it actually happens? It’s been about opening to the possibility of death not being so bad after all. This has included opening my arms to the passage of time, the dissolution and evolution of things and noticing how one thing becomes another and then another yet again, how nothing is ever the totality of what I can ever know at any given moment, and that, ultimately, how can I ever really or certainly know anything at all.
What I keep noticing is that the moment when I can embrace not-knowing, is exactly when I can most appreciate the grace and mystery of this thing we call life.
What brings me to this lovely subject of death, today, is an upcoming birthday: 39. What a number. If I let go, for one moment, of all the stories I’ve taken on about where one, and more specifically, a woman, should be by the age of 39, then 39 is really quite the number, a number I’ve never been before, an odd number, a number that is 3 times the wonderful 13, and, well, the number fun could go on and on, like how 3 squared is 9, and and and… But really this isn’t about that. I was talking about death…
I just read a poem by W. S. Merwin called For the Anniversary of my Death which led me to notice how excitedly, or at least significantly, we tend to celebrate birthdays, and how fearfully we both anticipate our death and avoid the thought of our death. I, like most — though maybe more so, since I grew up the daughter of missionaries for whom the subject of the state of one’s soul at the moment of death was of paramount importance— grew up with and continued believing any number of suppositions related to death. Most of those thoughts were scary, and certainly, to be avoided. Unless, of course, you took the magic pill which would save you from death and all the scary things that come with it, guaranteeing your name in the book, your entry at the pearly gates, and a seat at the heavenly table. But I’m not writing today to defend or refute those beliefs. I’m simply observing and wondering about the way things might be if I thought of death differently.
What if the upcoming day of our death were of just as much cause for celebration as the day of our birth? What if, in addition to our known day of birth, as children we were to begin celebrating our unknown day of death? It could even be fun to pick some random day to represent that mysterious unknown day, and on that day celebrate life, including, of course, our certain death. This may sound bizarre, but does it have to be? I see two bookends: one called birth, one called death, and in between there sit lots of facinating, stay-up-late-with-flashlight-under-the-covers-reading kind of books, one for each year in the amazing series of our lives.
So, I’m about to put the 39th book on that shelf. And if I didn’t still sometimes entertain old, recycled thoughts of where a woman of 39 should be, what kind of wrinkles and grayer shades of hair she should be hiding, and what she should have done with her life by now, well, there it is: #39, just another book, plain and simple. Another tome in the life I call “mine”, the life I keep thinking I own. Ha ha. It’s a good book, I must say: filled with love, adventure, its good share of drama and suspense, mixed in with hearty heaping moments of fear, and lots of page turning question marks and uncertainty too… in short, all the best stuff of stories.
And, P.S. 39 will happen on February 10!