I have started talking to the flowers and the trees when I walk to work in the morning. I thank them for being beautiful, I thank them for giving us clean air to breath and for replenishing the soil and for caring for the bees and the ants and the creeping things. I apologize to them for the ways we are poisoning them. I apologize to them for cutting down their brothers and sisters (the City recently felled a number of old trees that I used to pass on my morning route). I tell them I don’t know what to do to make things better. I touch their skins – their bark and leaves – I feel the dew and the rain that collects on them and rub it into my palms. I smell the evergreens. I ask them to come and visit me in my dreams, where we can share a common tongue and speak with one another and be understood.
They haven’t shown up yet. I’m not sure that they trust me. I don’t know why they would.
But I’ve got time.
What do you see, when you look upon the world into which you have been thrown? What are you looking for? What do you find there?
For a long time, I went looking for Death. Not because I was attracted to Death but because I thought that love could conquer Death and I thought that I could be an agent of love and Life in places abandoned and scarred and living in the valley of the shadow of Death.
And I found Death. The more I looked, the more I found Death everywhere.
(I think that Death, like God (if we can speak of such “things” as “God”), is beyond gender. But I will refer to Death as a “he”. It seems to me that men as a whole have had much more to do with Death than women or transgendered or intersexed people. It makes sense (quite literally, of course) to refer to Death as a “he.”)
But, yes, I went looking for Death and I found him. I found him lurking under jungle gyms in suburban parks. I saw him pissing behind a tree on the trails by UBC. Once, I passed him while he was smoking a cigarette at the base of the war memorial in Victory Square. I grew up with him, as did many others. The kids and adults and men and women I have worked with over the years were intimately acquainted with him. I hung out in bars he frequented – bars that put up signs saying, “watch your drinks, date rapes happen here.” I hung out in other bars where he came just as often but nobody put up any signs – buit, hey, I suppose that’s a bit of the difference between the rich and the poor, in dive bars people care for one another, in college bars, nobody gives a fuck.
But Death does not discriminate. I found him in the company of the rich and I found him in the company of the poor. He was in dining rooms and conference centres and churches and classrooms and alleys and condos and the greasy spoon breakfast joints that are everywhere if you know where to look. He asked thoughtful questions, he listened to lonely people talk, he often sat in silence watching us, he was generous with his embrace. He was nothing but generous.
Hebrews 13.2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
Perhaps. I don’t know anything about angels but I suspect that we have, often unbeknownst to ourselves, frequently hosted Death.
I looked for Death and I found him and I thought that love would conquer him… but slowly and inexorably, Death conquered me. I grew tired. I stopped loving well. And then I forgot what it is to love. Love became a stranger to me… and I became more and more attracted to Death. Memento mori, memento mori, memento mori.
How could I forget? How do you?
Do you know Santa Muerte? I know her well. She is the Virgin to whom I could pray for intercession. Have you seen Tod und Frau by Kathe Kollwitz? That is the only kind of visual art that connects with me – that hits me like a kick in the chest. Everything else leaves me cold.
When I sit on my couch and look out the window in my apartment, all I can see are trees and the sky. Because of where I am (next to a seniors’ home), and because of the angle of my view, it’s like there is nothing else out there but the trees and the sky, even though I am only minutes from downtown. I remember the day I realized that the trees were alive – that they were a form of life, silently growing and breathing and eating and drinking, just outside my window. I began to count how many I could see and I lost track somewhere around fifty. My God, I realized, I am surrounded by Life. I looked at the flowers. I looked at all the tiny blades of grass growing from the lawn below me. My God, my God, Life is so abundant. It’s everywhere. Silently there. Silently alive.
The world is full of Life.
Ruby is in love with animals. I hold her up by the window and we look for what we can find. She laughs and smiles and points and does an excited wriggle in my arms every time we spot something. So far we have seen squirrels and skunks and raccoons and rabbits and dogs and cats and geese and mallards and hawks and sparrows and starlings and cardinals and red-winged blackbirds and chickadees and butterflies and spiders and beetles and ants.
The other day, just outside my work, I saw a groundhog.
The world is full of Life. Ruby knows this. I had forgotten, but I am remembering now. I am beginning to look for it. I am starting to see it everywhere.
(And I have not forgotten Death – how can you forget him? But I am remembering there is more, so much more – in the ground, in the air, in the water, in the cracks in the sidewalk, crawling up the screen of my window, there is Life.)
A few weeks ago, I cried for the first time in over three years. After the night in the airport when my wife flew away with my son and I didn’t know if or when I would see them again and I cried and I cried and I cried, I haven’t been able to cry – no matter how much I felt like crying, nothing would come out. I felt sick in my heart. Something was wrong inside of me. Even during the dissolution of my marriage, I never cried. That’s just one example. So many traumas have occurred recently, and I have never cried. In all the tumult and hurt and breaking and brokenness of the last three and an half years, I have sat with a blank expression on my face and wondered why no tears came.
Then, a few weeks ago, two very dear friends came to visit me. It was a wonderful visit and after they left I cried – full-on hard, ugly cried. I cried not because I was sad that they were leaving – I cried because I was overcome with joy and gratitude that there are such wonderful people in the world and that I have the marvelous privilege of having some of those people consider me a friend. My God, my God, what a gift. I wept for joy and my tears said “thank you, thank you, thank you” in ways that I could never put into words.
Since then, I have found I myself crying much more frequently and much more easily than I have in a long time. I wept watching soldiers return home to their children. I wept when I heard that the grandchild of a friend had died. I am weeping at almost every fucking sentimental video I come across online.
I think my heart is knitting itself back together again – another cycle of rebirth has begun. And this is what I have started to wonder: perhaps it takes an intense experience of joy and gratitude to liberate us to feel the full bodily intensity of our sorrows. Perhaps it is knowing joy that permits us to know our sorrows. Perhaps. I don’t really know.
I do know this: I have gone looking for Life and, wonder of wonders, I think that I am also finding it in myself.
Revelation 21.1-5a: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among the people, and God will dwell among them and they shall be God’s people, and God will be among them, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any Death; there will no longer be any mourning or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’
And the One who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’”
I was holding Ruby and thanking her for spending time with me and telling her that I loved her so much and telling I was looking forward to seeing her when she came back from spending time with her mommy. She laughed and pointed over my shoulder and said, “Squirrel!”