Jean Marie Gunner

Jean Marie Gunner
We are all basically good.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

When Death Comes Calling

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality.  But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know?  I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race—that rarely do I ever simply estimate it.  I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.” 

From The Book Thief by Markus Zusak


Just a few days away from the autumnal equinox, the warm days turn cold very quickly, without the gradual transition that happens after a slow cooker of a summer day.  At this time of the year as the sun moves lower toward the horizon, the earth on its axis tilts its inhabitants in this northern hemisphere further away from the sun, and suddenly within just minutes the day turns into a chilly evening that calls for an extra fleece jacket. 

Even smack in the middle of a glorious sunny afternoon during one of my bike rides, a cool breeze arrives and turns the heat and sweat on my skin to goose flesh and I am grateful for my light weight cotton jacket, a barrier against the chilly fall wind. 

I am managing to ride my eight mile loop nearly every day; it clears my mind and places my attention back into my body.  How easy it is to forget that our mind is a part of a greater whole, the moving parts of limbs, torso, spine, heart, organs, breath and skin.  I know that all the thinking I do for work, for keeping the logistical calendar of my children and myself, for the particular life challenges at the moment keeps me extra tense and I will relax and slow down to a more even pace as soon as I hop on my bike.  Within four blocks I am breathing more deeply, relaxing my mind, and settling into a physical rhythm that helps sweep away the foggy cobwebs of an overly full and easily distractible 21st century mind.

And while on the bike, I am struck by the change in the feel of the air on my skin and in my nostrils, by the crunch of the leaves beneath my bike’s two wheels, by the sunlight on the trees creating golden hues and deep recesses of shadows between the branches, by the sound of the quieting down on earth. I notice a stray butterfly riding the currents of the autumn air above the creek bed where I stop on my bike ride to drink from my water bottle and I see the voluminous, strapping clouds in that same fall sky.  In the midst of all these sensory experiences, I am also struck by death right now.  Death has always been hanging around, right here next to life, it is just demanding a little more of my attention at the moment.

The other night as I was just ready to fall off the edge of the waking world, death’s heady breath touched my cheek, a reminder that we all are powerless to avert this inevitable encounter.  Two absolute realizations.  First, I feel this letting go, an absolution to figure out “the why” of a few big questions in my life.  It is about letting go of trying to control life, thinking it is possible to will away death or outsmart the pending fall.  I am just letting it all go, letting it all be. I am going to breathe and be content, dare I say, despite all the apparent difficulty and sadness that I am encountering, I am even going to be joyful. 

Second, I feel absolutely powerless to resist death and I have been fooling myself for quite a while now, convincing myself that I was not afraid of death.  See the truth is I am.  Not so much the act of dying, as the showing up on the other side of living, alone.  Shy of what is there waiting for me.  You know that interminable fear of arriving at a party without anyone you know, just yourself, and wondering if there will be anyone there that will want to talk to you, who might like you just a little and ease the awkwardness of those first few moments of stark aloneness. 

The noticing that fear is here, and welcoming it in, being curious and finding out more about who this fear actually is has become my theme for this pending fall.  Paying attention, being inquisitive, uncovering who this fear is and what it can teach and offer me, in life and in death, is actually helping me to let go, to become the outrageous fearless warrior I know I am. 

Just the other day, my youngest son told me a story about a real life act of courage.  He recounted to me that he recently slept out in his fort by himself all night long.  He offered to me this story of bravery and fearlessness and looked me directly in the eye to make sure I heard him.  This felt like a moment of sanity, a moment built on straightforward, direct, honest communication.  He wasn’t seeking any response other than my active listening and receiving of his message.

Someday, one day, I will be no more, but right now while I am, I can do a lot of good, even simple, quiet, garden variety good.  Like, pausing before I react to my kids, searching for understanding in a deeper way when my children do something I may find questionable, or sitting quietly in meditation relaxing and calming my mind so I can be a sane, loving human being.  If all I can ever offer is deep listening to a boy’s moments of courage and daring, then that is enough.  I need no other answer; I need no longer hold on so tightly to life.  So when death comes calling, I can let go knowing I was brave enough to truly live.

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