Learning to Dance with Both Life and Death

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.

By |2019-01-19T21:33:37+01:00January 2nd, 2018|Personal musings|20 Comments

About the Author:

I’m an American expat living in Italy!

20 Comments

  1. Lisa Brown January 29, 2018 at 9:17 pm - Reply

    Dear friend,
    I haven’t visited you here in a long while. Love this post, of course, as it’s one of my favorite topics. Thank you for your wise words and feelings on the subject. I like the reminders of being ready, yet not being in a hurry. Perfect!
    Many hugs, Nurse Brown

    • Jed January 30, 2018 at 4:42 pm - Reply

      Grazie mille, Nurse Brown!!!

  2. Amy January 8, 2018 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    Jed,

    I wonder if you’ve ever attended a death cafe? It seems like many of the things you express here are universal to those who choose to look past the veil and dare to confront what they find. This is a central goal of the Death Cafe, to demystify the end of life as some taboo subject. Anyway, your writing made me think to ask about it. Oh, and did I mention that at a Death Cafe there’s always cake? I mean, come on, who says no to cake? Not you, because you are saying yes.

    • Jed January 9, 2018 at 10:34 am - Reply

      Hi Amy, I haven’t attended a death cafe, but now that I know there is such a thing, I will. I’ve already done an internet search and found one in Bologna. It’s a two-hour drive or a quick train trip, so I’m putting this on my list. I suspect I will end up writing another chapter on this topic. I’d like to be part of helping with the removal of the taboo perception of death. Thank you so much for drawing my attention to this! Jed

  3. Chip Meeks January 3, 2018 at 8:35 am - Reply

    Thanks Jed! Your mama spoke of visiting you the last I saw her in Aug 2013. With oxygen tank and all she was telling me than was coming to see you in Italy, eyes sparkling! Good topic,… for old soldiers too. Much love Brother! Enjoy and fully experience all of your “yes” days in 2018!

    • Jed January 3, 2018 at 11:03 am - Reply

      Always great to hear from you, Chip! I’m so glad friends like you help me to remember my mom so fondly. I hope all is well with you and that you have a spectacular 2018. Love and good thoughts to you and yours! Jed

  4. Kevin January 3, 2018 at 1:20 am - Reply

    So Jed….I see that you decided to start this year with the proverbial clubbing of a baby seal! As I read this whimsical masterpiece I find myself feeling a bit guilty…on so many levels…as I’m not sure I will ever come to terms with death or be able to achieve the balance you describe. I think it’s heavily dependent on one’s spirituality…or lack thereof…and in this respect I have some inner turmoil. I will have to read this piece multiple times just to barely dent the massive amount of denial/coping skills that I’ve cemented in place. It’s heavy stuff but this is one of the most awesome things about you and your writing. I may not come out of this with much hope…but I do love the insight, wisdom and courage that you show in the face of life.

    • Jed January 3, 2018 at 11:16 am - Reply

      Thank you, Kevin. As you know, I journal publically through this blog. It’s scary much of the time to reveal the bumpy road that has lead me to this point in life. I can say confidently that I don’t bury my head in the sand regarding death and that I don’t hold it at arm’s length. But, the overwhelming mystery will always leave me with a certain amount of psychological trembling. Steering into my fears and pain is quite a different thing for me these days, since the older and more-conditioned me is so adept at escape strategies.
      I responded to Betty, in the comments below, with a passage on death from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. My mom introduced me to his poetry. My other favorite passage is on pain. Below is an excerpt you mind interesting. Thanks, as always, for writing and sharing. Jed

      “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses
      your understanding.

      Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its
      heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

      And could you keep your heart in wonder at the
      daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem
      less wondrous than your joy;

      And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
      even as you have always accepted the seasons that
      pass over your fields.

      And you would watch with serenity through the
      winters of your grief.

      Much of your pain is self-chosen.

      It is the bitter potion by which the physician within
      you heals your sick self. ”

      – Kahlil Gibran

  5. Linda Dini Jenkins January 2, 2018 at 11:47 pm - Reply

    A perfect post for the New Year, and a message I very much needed to hear today. Thanks so much, and Buon Capodanno! Linda

    • Jed January 3, 2018 at 11:00 am - Reply

      Grazie, Linda. Altrettanto. Hope to see you this year!

  6. Betty January 2, 2018 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    Jed, what beautiful music you make with your perceptions. It is so often hard to express our own view of mortality and you have done it so well, plus the gift of the positive for us! Thanks!

    • Jed January 2, 2018 at 7:06 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Betty. Kahlil Gibran, one of my mother’s favorite authors also wrote
      “In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
      And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
      Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.”

      I hope your 2018 is off to a good start! Jed

  7. Deb Vallance January 2, 2018 at 5:38 pm - Reply

    Remembering my great teachers, Liz and Dad, with such gratitude. Comparing my journey to each of theirs is futile and can be disheartening–no way to “measure up.” But emulating their spirit, one day at a time–that’s living!

    • Jed January 2, 2018 at 7:02 pm - Reply

      Dearest Deb. I always love hearing from you. Morris, also for me, was one of my greatest teachers. He had such a huge heart, fierce intelligence, incredible generosity, and impeccable style and manners. I miss his letters. I always marveled at how he was such an artist with words. Miss you and Sam, love, Jed

  8. Robin Fink January 2, 2018 at 3:39 pm - Reply

    Bless you Jed. Beautiful post. We all miss our mothers.

    We hope you and Simone are well.

    Hugs and kisses, Robin and Markus

    • Jed January 2, 2018 at 6:58 pm - Reply

      Hi Robin and Markus! Always good to hear from you. You know, so well, the ache and impact of losing our mothers. They remain with us as a sweet “ache”, don’t they?

  9. Kathryn Smith January 2, 2018 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    This is one of the best posts you have written. A perfect New Year’s day reflection!

    • Jed January 2, 2018 at 6:56 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Kathryn. That’s high praise coming from you!

  10. Nancy January 2, 2018 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    Thanks Jed. This topic weighs heavily on my mind these days.

    • Jed January 2, 2018 at 6:56 pm - Reply

      I hear you, Nancy. Hope you and Luther are doing well, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the holidays. Bacioni, Jed

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