Learning to Dance with Both Life and Death

life and death, Italywise

San Michele Cemetery Angel

I believe spending time in cemeteries helps remind me to wake up to the intrinsic dance of life and death. That’s why I love, in particular, Venice’s San Michele and Paris’s Pere Lachaise cemeteries. They help me to zoom back to the present and examine my life and whether I’m living on autopilot by keeping death at arm’s length and pretending that I’ve got nothing but time.

You may be reading this and proclaiming “How morbid!”––especially as a New Year’s contemplation. Stick with me, as I believe my musings are ultimately hopeful.

Two things conspired to bring the dance of life and death to my attention.

I’m facing the fourth anniversary of the death of my dear Momma Liz. She died just months after I completely changed my life and moved to Italy. I’ve learned that such a pivotal life event never entirely recedes in the rearview mirror. Mom’s passing, the singular most feared moment in my life, became the metaphorical dynamite that effectively began blasting loose years of conditioning and sleepwalking. It’s painful still, but I’ve survived to receive the gifts that death continues to give me.

Yesterday, the second reminder grabbed my attention, a motorcycle fatality, just around the corner from our house. I was on my way to the gym. The police had just draped a white sheet over the deceased motorcyclist. No blood. Merely the sleeve of a leather jacket and a gloved hand sticking out. A life snuffed out in a split second.

Dancing with both life and death can shake us out of our stupors.

I’m determined to make peace with death now and not put it off by banking on several more decades, even though that’s a reasonable expectation.

As I stand at the starting gate of yet another year, I pause to take stock of what dancing with life and death is teaching me. Consider the following:

Wake up saying yes.

I’m too used to a default of rejecting anything that doesn’t feel good or something I perceive as not being in my best interest. A large part of my life has been spent labeling, categorizing and rejecting. It’s been an ultimately unsuccessful attempt at managing and controlling my existence. Frequently this has manifested by waking up in the morning with a mind furiously chasing its tail. Have you been immobilized like me, in bed, waiting for the feel-good moment that is the signal you’re good to get up and go?

I’m learning the power of saying yes to whatever I wake up to in the morning, and not just in a white-flag kind of way. Yes has become my rallying cry to whatever mood I’m in and to however life is showing up.

I’m tired of running and feeling a sense of constantly armoring myself. Being in a posture of defensive constriction just robs me of energy. And, guess what? When I do relax and say yes, energy moves, and things that feel icky or unresolved more often than not right themselves.

Be willing to let go of my “me” ideas.

This one is a monumental relief. I’ve wasted too much energy and effort trying to feel real and solid by keeping this idea of “me” glued together through memories of the past and projection into the future.

What’s to lose when I quit clinging to a false sense of who I am––one that is invariably separate and limited?

Life happens now, not yesterday or tomorrow.

This is the biggest trick of all that our minds use to keep us on a short leash. We are so busy attending to regrets and what-ifs that, too often, there is no energy left over to experience the present moment. I believe living with a deathbed mentality (as one of my followers put it so aptly) has the ability to yank us out of all that nonsense so that we’re truly present in our lives, moment by moment.

Less sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking, for me, primarily occurs when I delude myself into thinking death always happens to someone else. Certainly not me. I’m guaranteed a long life, right? This is the most laughable of all human illusions, in my opinion. Is it a trick or a defensive mechanism our minds play on us?

I’m reading an excellent book called The Grace in Aging, by Kathleen Dowling Singh (Wisdom Publications). It’s ripe with observations and wisdom about impermanence and how we frequently choose to anesthetize ourselves rather than own up to the fact that we all die.

“We prefer, often, to hide in the familiarity of our unmindfulness, usually having done so for so long that unmindfulness seems like home. The dreaming seems like waking, the sleepwalking like living.”
– Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging

What if a wholesale embrace of our mortality now, instead of putting if off, rips off the blinders and rouses us from our slumber?

Quit labeling death as bad, and trying to remove it from our experiences of life.

Life and death are equal partners. There is no dance, no music, without their embrace. Westerners are particularly adroit at shoving death aside. We label it as bad. We often look at it as a failure. Maybe that’s why enormous effort and expense is spent to vanquish it, even when it remains inevitable and imminent.

We lament the tragic day of death, considering it an onerous occurrence, instead of a sacred part of the cycle of life. And so, we postpone conversations about death. It’s bad luck. It’s morbid. Right?

Playing it safe is over-rated.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating living irresponsibly or throwing caution to the wind. But, one of the most often cited regrets of octogenarians is “I wish I had taken more chances.”

Yes, perhaps you can race through life fending off difficulties to keep life secure. That’s our well-worn training and conditioning: get it right at all costs and manage our time and existence to guarantee a predictable and successful result. We’re not taught the art of surrender and of taking chances.

Welcome the march of time

Marvel at our transformations and the evolution of wisdom. Don’t cringe when we look in the mirror and don’t see the complexion of superficial youth smiling back at us. Don’t fret when the spring in our step seems less spry. Don’t look over our shoulders longing for a self of days long gone. Instead, celebrate the matured self, wrinkles and all.

I’m older and, hopefully, wiser, thanks to inviting death onto the dance floor of my life. I did so somewhat reluctantly, fearing what it would mean. Would I become obsessed with death? Would I start being on high alert to ward off it? I was scared initially, that’s true. But, like any unquestioned fear, it only held power over me if I didn’t challenge my beliefs about it.

In closing…

I come back to the impending anniversary of my mother’s death. In the month preceding her passing, my sister probed as to how she was feeling about her failing condition. I don’t know exactly how the question was posed, but at its roots, this was an inquiry about death. Mom’s answer? “I’m ready, but I’m not in any hurry.” For me, these words beautifully capture the dance between life and death.

I want to slow down to live presently and vividly, remembering each day is a gift, and that subsequent days are never guaranteed.