Autumn frost has graced the trail these past few days and walks at dawn have been startling in their beauty: all is gilded with light and dipped in diamond dust. This morning I walked in the low golden light of dawn. Frost had breathed along the sharply cut edges of the grass, leaves, and branches, and scattered their surfaces with crushed crystal.
These are images fraught with dichotomy, revealing both nature’s fragility and its endurance, for even as I photograph the brilliant colors and life encrusted with glittering flashes of light, I am recording its dying; and anticipating its springtime renewal. Everywhere we walk is both a cemetery and a nursery. Every moment holds the yin-yang diminishment balanced with the blossoming of life-death.
Traditional fall harvest celebrations also recognize the paradox of abundance and blessing amidst death and loss. We witness the waning of the year’s light and enter a time of darkness, and so all of the attendant metaphors and archetypes make their annual entrance into our conscious and unconscious pursuits and rituals: death, the shadow, the metaphysical, and the immaterial. We fear our own deterioration and death, and so we mock our decay with heightened, deliberate grotesqueries and dark humor. We’ll trick death by disguising ourselves.
Loved ones who have died often feel closer to our hearts and spirits in autumn. We yearn to connect with them; we honor our ancestors; we recall the dead with stories, and ceremonies, rituals, and reflection.
We sense our own dying as nature dies back to the earth, and we can choose to either avoid these encounters, or quietly and consciously enter and be with them, reviewing our life, “rehearsing” our death, and pondering the miracle, meaning, and mystery of both.
Death, when it’s personal to us, is a close-up, freeze-frame event with a beginning and end. When people, companions, and things we love die, we’re thrust into the sharply-focused now-now-now, followed by days and months of time smearing past as grief shudders through our lives. Our spirits and emotions stagger like clumsy giants caught in the maze of memory and loss. It is a time we often recollect as experienced in shadows, pinned like captured butterflies to grief and its unique mixture of guilt, longing, regret, and emptiness, infused with exquisite sorrow.
But the journey of grief, if we’re willing to travel all the way through it–both alone and with guides and friends to support us–allows us to gain a greater perspective regarding our loss and perhaps rest easier within our own dying. The longshot replaces the close-up, and, in retrospect, we see that death is not a finite event, but only an arc in life’s endless circle. The light returns, and we begin to feel the resurgence it offers, the blessings offered not just by the one who has died, but by the journey through loss itself. Every loss kicks up all the others, and each time we walk with them, we heal more deeply. Our compassion for others’ suffering is more finely-tuned, as is our ability to put the cares of the world into better perspective. The daily round becomes unique and precious, and the mundane is more easily recognized and treasured as miraculous.
When I accompanied the dying on their journeys, I felt blessed by those who accepted death as a natural part of life, and breathed into the journey with love. They grieved their lives and their partings, but they entered the “next arc in the circle” gracefully and with peace. This goes against our societal fear of dying, our healthcare model, and our cultural demands to stay eternally young and to deny death altogether, but most of the many people I’ve journeyed with as their lives changed worlds, have courageously and intentionally chosen this path of acceptance.
Some, of course, preferred the “battle metaphor” perpetuated by our fears and western medical model. From this perspective, death is a source of embarrassment and shame, signifying weakness and defeat. “She’s a fighter!” “Do not go gently!” Their poor bodies were usually ravaged by treatments and drugs and surgeries that may (or may not) have gained agonizing days or months, but little quality time or strength to reflect upon and integrate their dying experience in peace. Their spirits seemed to leave both angrily and broken, and bequeathed the living a legacy of tragic, even fearful memories of the ways one can die.
People who fear death become anxious and parrot popular advice, whether it’s true and helpful or not. I’ve repeatedly heard the lines, “people die the way they live” and “we all have the right to die as we choose,” but my experience has made clear to me that the choices surrounding the way one journeys with death make a huge difference to the dying person and to the peace and the energy surrounding the grief journeys of those who remain. While there isn’t a right, or wrong, or only way to face our dying, there are certainly gradations in denial and acceptance that color the experience. And I have seen that many people do not die the way they have lived; they evolve and transform during the dying experience and exit it healed, granting deep comfort to their loved ones.
The spiritual life is a constant shift between these close-up’s and longshots, freeze frames and moving pictures, encounters with death and renewal. We go within and “introspect” our responses to experiences and loss; we pull back and “extrospect” how these fit into our worldview or gain insights that lead us to alter it. We review and, in retrospect, mine our relationships, experiences, successes, and losses for enriched understanding so we may know where and who we are now.
Autumn frost invites close-up shots just as autumn colors benefit from long shots; the spiritual life requires a balance between these: both introspection and extrospection are needed as we examine our losses, bless them, heal them as we’re able, and look for the new life they’re generating.
Befriending death, rather than fearing, avoiding, or denying it, is a way of being loving and generous to ourselves and to the entire circle of our journey, and as a practice, it opens a path of gratitude for our lives. We’re continually invited to “heal today,” so that death will be a welcoming and wide-open doorway rather than an experience we’re ill-prepared to meet. Mend, forgive, move lightly, share gratitude, express love, make peace in your life and relationships. Now.
I’m dancing with my life and therefore my death every day, for they are the same partner. And every day, I hope to breathe wisdom and balance my perspectives between long shots and close-up’s; I hope to reflect the beauty of diamond dust at dawn; I hope to feel the peace of the journey; and I hope to rest in the wisdom that it is hallowed and forever.
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