William Edelen: Reflections On My Own Death

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From WILLIAM EDELEN
The Contrary Minister

At age 92 and facing reality and natures laws, I know that my days are now “dwindling down to a precious few.” (September Song). I write my reflections on this subject as an essay as my gift to you. In all my years as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches, and my own unique Sunday Symposiums from Santa Rosa, CA to Palm Springs, CA, the one question that has been asked me THOUSANDS of times is… “BILL, WHAT IS YOUR FEELING ABOUT DEATH… AND BEYOND… WHAT DO YOU THINK REALLY HAPPENS?”

Many Christian churches have promoted and thrived on a FEAR of death and dying and the JUDGEMENT that goes with it from a “hit man” anthropomorphic “God”. The biblical St. Paul writes, “The last ENEMY that shall be overcome is death.” In Buddhism, Zen and Taoism, they laugh at this absurdity and stupidity of DEATH as an ENEMY. How could anything as NATURAL as death be an enemy? EVERY living organism dies. It is a natural and beautiful part of birth and life. I totally agree, and as a former lecturer in Eastern thought on this subject find the archaic “fear” and “judgment” preached by many Christian pastors illiterate, insulting, degrading, cruel and outrageous.

Another “gift” to you is my strong suggestion that, if this is a subject you want to pursue, you read a brilliant book “Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Wisdom in the Presence of Death” by my dear friend Joan Halifax who was the assistant to Joseph Campbell, when I spent a month studying with them. Joan is now a Zen priest (Roshi), with a doctorate in Anthropology, who founded the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one of the most amazing and brilliant people I have ever known. This book is a MUST for you on this subject. In Buddhism greed, hatred, ignorance and delusion are called the four poisons. Buddha taught that it’s precisely these self-involved poisons that feed our suffering and fear of death. One can change the poisons into medicines… through the exercise of generosity, charity and fearlessness. Pictured is Joan Halifax Roshi with the Dalai Lama.

On a lighter side is an observation by one of my heroes, STANLEY KUNITZ, twice chosen Poet Laureate of the United States, who was asked as he approached his 100th birthday… what were his thoughts about his approaching death? His answer: “Well… I don’t lose any sleep over it…”

Another of my “heroes” CARL JUNG, as he approached 90 years of age, said what I feel now as I approach 100. “An unconditional YES to the acceptance of my own nature, as I happen to be. We may think there is a sure road, but that would be the road of death. Anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead. I understood early how important it is to affirm one’s own destiny. I am satisfied with the course my life has taken. How could I have experienced so much? Much might have been different if I myself had been different. But it was as it had to be, for it all came about because I AM AS I AM.”

Never has it been better said than by that giant thinker and Renaissance man, Carl Jung. It is a very accurate mirror of my own reflections as I travel the road toward 100. Both of my doctors told me only this week that I am good to hit 100… with no prescription pills… super blood pressure… and a brain and mind still SHARP, ALERT, AWAKE AND AWARE. So on that 100th birthday, will be my good glass of wine, a small cigar, a little music by Carlos Jobim… and a great Joyful cry of GRATITUDE to the Mystery of the Universe.

It is VIKTOR FRANKL, the legendary psychiatrist, who gave me my closing thoughts on these “reflections”. “Death is what gives MEANING to Life… for without death, life would be meaningless. It would make no difference if you did a thing today or a thousand years from today. With death just ahead, every moment becomes more precious, and not to be wasted. Minor issues and little petty resentments and anger become just a meaningless and stupid waste of time and energy. The precious moments left are so few, with death waiting. Why kiss my tombstone… when instead I can choose to say… “I love you”.

Dear friends and readers of my columns and essays… this has been my gift to you today… for whatever it is worth to you. My very own personal and private reflections on my own death, just up the road a bit and without an ounce of Fear or anxiety. But only with the Joy of the closing Mystery. LIFE, SO CALLED, IS ONLY A BRIEF INTERLUDE BETWEEN TWO GREAT MYSTERIES, WHICH ARE YET… ONE.
~~

4 Comments

Thank you, William Edelen,
Life may be short, and your little essay is short! You may say, ” .. well, what more is there to say?”. You certainly are succinct, and, before I continue, I should qualify that this is being written four months before my own 83rd b’day. Yet, with all due respect to your seniority and that of all who have passed on after having added to the cumulative wisdom on the subject, I don’t think the last words have been thought, let alone written, on “death” and/or its functional significance in the mind of “man” (sorry to be species-centric, no choice in the matter – are there doubting whales? Elephants? Queen bees? No frivolity intended, I seriously admit that, for me, the information loops remain open).

(open end is derived from my personal experiences interacting with ant colonies)

All those parenthetical qualifications! But, you see, nothing is pure and simple, including “honesty”, when thought and all of its children are involved (“everyday” language, expression of inner states in song, “objective” analysis, the list is long) .

Don’t mean to be overly “confessional” in this space, but honesty (“accuracy”) must trump purity of theme. Yes, I’ve waffled around about “death” in my life, and some of my earlier behavior certainly qualifies as “denial”, even “fear”. Even now I can’t “guarantee” my thoughts/words are not veiled avoidance.

So be it! But continuing with the honesty theme, I truly believe there seems to be something of ” .. lay me down, roll me over, and do it again” in all of this talk about dying :) And that smiley doesn’t imply “dying with a smile”. Naw, it’s just a mixed bag instance of an overused and very recent addition to our wired/wireless vocabulary, the txting or typing equivalent to the photo-op grin, oh so “nice” – while allowing that second thought equivalent of “I don’t really mean the awful thing I just wrote”.

In a capsule, here, and much more darkly, Dylan Thomas underscores the complexity of the topic in his poem, whose title is its first line, and which is worth quoting in its entirety:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, 

Because their words had forked no lightning they 

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright 

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, 

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, 

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight 

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height, 

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray. 

Do not go gentle into that good night. 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Decades ago I took that poem to heart, and especially the ending couplet. That couplet “energizes” my own mantram, to wit, “I Will not take orders from the universe”!

Foolhardy or arrogant? Well, for the moment, we’ll move on!

I don’t believe the last words have been written on the seemingly inexorable end of sentient existence. One cannot know, now, the ultimate dimensions of bioenergetic cybernetics, and if you look the word combo up, you will find only rudimentary, quasi experimental explorations in that direction. But at least they are using the words.

Two more 20th century poets give us space to roam in the mental caverns where death and life coexist:

The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost this time, brings a depth of feeling to the quandary of choice, of unintended or accidental outcomes, necessary in the reality of forking roads, choices, ultimate destinations. Only, in this instance, Frost leaves us in a quite different emotional state:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.

And finally, T. S. Eliot provides an ultimate cynicism against which to balance our own understanding of the relationship between “life” and “death”, the former as mere prelude and foretaste of the latter – the latter, even, as metaphor for the former:

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy


I

We are the hollow men 

We are the stuffed men
Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when 

We whisper together 

Are quiet and meaningless 

As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar.



Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion;



Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom

Remember us—if at all—not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men.


II


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams

In death’s dream kingdom

These do not appear:

There, the eyes are

Sunlight on a broken column

There, is a tree swinging

And voices are
In the wind’s singing

More distant and more solemn

Than a fading star.



Let me be no nearer

In death’s dream kingdom

Let me also wear

Such deliberate disguises

Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves

In a field

Behaving as the wind behaves

No nearer—


Not that final meeting

In the twilight kingdom


III
This is the dead land

This is cactus land

Here the stone images

Are raised, here they receive

The supplication of a dead man’s hand

Under the twinkle of a fading star.



Is it like this

In death’s other kingdom

Waking alone

At the hour when we are

Trembling with tenderness

Lips that would kiss

Form prayers to broken stone.


IV


The eyes are not here

There are no eyes here

In this valley of dying stars

In this hollow valley

This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms



In this last of meeting places

We grope together

And avoid speech

Gathered on this beach of the tumid river



Sightless, unless

The eyes reappear

As the perpetual star

Multifoliate rose

Of death’s twilight kingdom

The hope only
Of empty men.


V


Here we go round the prickly pear

Prickly pear prickly pear

Here we go round the prickly pear

At five o’clock in the morning.



Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom



Between the conception

And the creation

Between the emotion

And the response

Falls the Shadow

Life is very long



Between the desire

And the spasm

Between the potency

And the existence

Between the essence

And the descent

Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom



For Thine is

Life is

For Thine is the



This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

I guess my concluding point would be, for me, that I will not whimper, but would rather aid and abet some sort of necessary big bang in the jolting universal complacency.

That, better than everlasting hymns.

I guess my concluding point would be, for me, that I will not whimper, but would rather aid and abet some sort of necessary big bang in the jolting of universal complacency.

Ah, death. That ‘eye of the needle’ we will all have to pass through, with worldly baggage left behind. The progression of a life naturally brings one to such ruminations. As long as we’re sharing, consider the offering below. Short, succinct, maybe a little bit stark, but as a wise elder used to remind me, “It is what it is”.

KALIMANTRA

I have seen the Great Mother
She is serpentine
and relentless
She is a byzantine field
of electric complexity
She is your life and substance
Your birth and death
There is nowhere
she is not
No one
that does not return

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