Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

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As I mentioned in my last post, we’re in the Canary Islands right now and I’ve set a little challenge for myself. Can I write a series of posts that are less than 5,000 words? Even, dare I say it, 750 words?

We’ll see.

While I’m feeling ambitious, why not tackle a massive and depressing/uplifting topic, depending on your beliefs? Like, what is it like to be dead?

The inspiration comes from the “light” beach reading I brought along. It’s a memoir called Smoke Gets Unknown-1in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty, a woman who worked (still works?) at a funeral home, cremating bodies or otherwise preparing them for burial. I bought the book because she published a fascinating piece in The New Yorker about her line of work, and then I found her memoir while passing time at the Heidelberg train station.

Perfect beach reading.

I must admit that I have a fascination with death. It’s something that’s deepened over time (and, no, I’m not stuck in some extended high school Goth stage or anything like that.)

In recent years I’ve lost more than just a few loved ones to incredibly unexpected circumstances. They died well before what anyone could fairly quantify as “their time.” When someone I love finally passes at a ripe, old age, I’ll probably rejoice for the fact that they overcame what seem to be relative odds!

All of this death has led me to a deeper awareness of what we’re programmed, as human beings, to shrug off. We’re terminal. It’s a thought that feels slippery. We can think about it for short periods of time, but not really absorb it, if that makes sense? Thinking about or discussing our own terminality is like holding a bar of soap. It’s there, in our palm, but always about to squirm out and drop down into the tub.

Whereas most people seem to be able to get through their days without thinking about “what comes next,” I seem to be missing that measure of preoccupation.

I don’t know—I think I’m just desperate to know what death is. Okay, let’s say we go to heaven. Yeah, but what is that like? On a daily basis? Will we be conscious in the sense that we are now? If not, what form will we be in?

It’s hard not to talk about it in effervescent metaphors. The faith I was raised with taught me that it’s the epitome of peace. It’s forgiveness. Light. Eternity.

That sounds like bliss, and I do actually believe that wholeheartedly. But my question is– what will it be like at seven p.m. on a Friday when I’m dead? What will I be doing? If I’m in a different form, then what will that be like? Does time work the same way? So, if I die ten years before Todd, will I have to chill out up there for ten years without him? Or, does time work in an entirely different spectrum there? Will I be conscious in the way that I am, now? Or not?

A few years ago I tried to ease my mind on this issue by reading a book by Julian Barnes called NothingUnknown-2 to be Frightened Of. It’s a memoir and meditation on death. I thought the title seemed promising—perhaps it might provide answers? Comfort?

Well, I misread the emphasis on words. It was my first time tackling Barnes, and I had no idea that he’s agnostic or that the title was actually pointing out his opinion that we have “nothing” to be frightened of. In other words, he believes we’re headed for a big fat zero. And, how can we be afraid of ‘Nothingness?’

I read an excellent New York Times book review written by Garrison Keillor that quotes Barnes.

“We are all dying. Even the sun is dying. Homo sapiens is evolving toward some species that won’t care about us whatsoever and our art and literature and scholarship will fall into utter oblivion. Every author will eventually become an unread author. And then humanity will die out and beetles will rule the world. A man can fear his own death but what is he anyway? Simply a mass of neurons. The brain is a lump of meat and the soul is merely “a story the brain tells itself.” Individuality is an illusion. Scientists find no physical evidence of “self” — it is something we’ve talked ourselves into. “

Great. So, if I’m honest, this book did not comfort me.

There are only two things I’ve ever read that partially answers my question and makes me feel okay about things. Again, I’m not talking about what happens when we die. I’m asking what does it feel like to be dead?

The first is scientific. Energy cannot be destroyed. Period. Our singular personalities, raging with ideas, emotions, pet peeves, hormonal imbalances, and all the little epiphanies that come our way are chock full of energy. That’s obvious. Who knows where all that energy will go. But I’m convinced it will go somewhere—because it can’t be destroyed.

I find comfort in my energy. It makes me confident that I won’t be reduced to “nothing” in the future. Sorry, Julian Barnes.

The second thing I read that got my head nodding in agreement came from another article in The New Yorker and I’m sorry to say I can’t tell you right now who wrote it. I looked around on the Internet during Laken’s first nap, but didn’t have any luck. If I can find the author, I’ll amend this post.

In the article, the writer said that dogs are awesome little buds. You can give them basic commands, like ‘sit’ or ‘stay’ or ‘fetch.’ But, if you try to talk to one about philosophy or what was going through the jury’s mind when they acquitted O.J. Simpson, you’re not going to get much of a response.

dogs-1190015__180

Dogs just aren’t wired that way. They understand basic commands, but the deeper stuff of life is way over their capacity.

The writer went on to say that human beings are similar to dogs when it comes to discussing the particulars of what’s going to happen when we leave this life. We simply aren’t wired or equipped with the vocabulary to get that particular conversation.

Fair enough. I can deal with that, not that there’s a choice. But, it still intrigues/scares the hell out of me, sometimes.

In the meantime–and I know this sounds crazy—I’ve got it in my head that I want to be buried in the same coffin as Todd.

I’ve read too much Edgar Allen Poe and the sordid details of premature burials, thank you very much.

Todd is a resourceful hunk of a man, and if I suddenly wake up to find myself in a coffin six feet into the ground—I want him with me. He’ll get us out, whether he’s alive or not. That’s just how my husband is.

P.S.–This is not 750 words!!!

P.S.S. But it ended up taking two days to write. So, divided by half I won the challenge.

P.S.S.S. This is totally outside my normal topic “type” but vacation obviously brings something morbid out of me. It must be the credit card bill at the end.

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14 thoughts on “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

    • Awesome! That’s a really weird/awful/better not ever happen thought…but, I hear you–I plan to haunt Laken, Olivia and Delaney too!

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  1. I also view heaven simply as a “state” that bears no relationship whatsoever to time and space as we know it. If it’s true that heaven bears no relationship to time (!!!) and space, then maybe it is reasonable to hope that everyone I have known or currently know are already waiting for me on the other side! Maybe our dog too, that would be nice.

    You’re right about that “hunk of man” stuff, when Mom dies a hundred years from now she might want me around; I guess I better not get myself cremated.

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    • Thanks, pops! I actually got that whole time as a ‘state’ idea from you! I hadn’t thought about things that way, and now it’s one of my big questions! Your idea that everyone you’ve ever loved might already be waiting there sounds awesome. I’m just so curious if that’s truly what’s going to happen (?!?!?) And yes, don’t get cremated. I didn’t like that chapter in the book. Stick around and maybe you and mom can be buried together, too! Very romantic, this coffin sharing thing!!! :-))))

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  2. I love it when I read your work and it is about a topic we have talked about and seeing it in writing clarifies it all the more for me. This piece was really interesting in a completely different vein as I had no idea about your thoughts on death (apart from that you want to be buried in the same coffin as your ‘hunk of a man’!!) interesting read. I love the comparison between us and dogs when it comes to the more inexplainable phenomenons. Enjoy your last few holiday days xx

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    • Thanks Anna!! You are awesome. I can’t believe that, with everything else you have to do on a day to day basis, that you’re reading my blog. I just love you! As for my thoughts on death, yeah, I do think about it a lot and don’t really know why. For some reason I’m just constantly aware/freaked out by the fact that it’s not hypothetical…we are all headed that way…and what the hell does it mean? Not exactly light beach reading/topics but there we go! See you this week!!! Xxx

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  3. If you feel up to tackling another Julian Barnes work I’d recommend A History Of The World in 10 and 1/2 Chapters. Trust me–it’s much funnier and more thought-provoking, from the story of Noah’s ark as told by a stowaway animal to a man who finds Heaven ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, and somewhere in there Barnes has a very powerful meditation on love that beats anything he has to say about death.

    But when it comes to the vocabulary of the afterlife I have to go to Star Trek, and a tete-a-tete between two principals after one of them literally came back from the dead:

    McCoy: C’mon, Spock, it’s me, McCoy. You really have gone where no man’s gone before. Can’t you tell me what it felt like?

    Spock: It would be impossible to discuss the subject without a common frame-of-reference.

    McCoy: You’re joking!

    Spock: A joke…is a story with a humorous climax.

    McCoy: You mean I have to die to discuss your insights on death?

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    • I just went ahead and ordered A History of the World in 10 and 1/2 chapters! That was actually one I’d marked down as ‘want to read’ and then just lost track of it, somehow. I’m definitely interested now and can’t wait to to hear what Barnes has to say about love. Who are some of your favorite writers? Favorite books? (I’ll have to search your page to see if this answer is anywhere.) I’m just curious because you seem like a bright person who has good recommendations to offer. 🙂 As for Star Trek, I love the dialogue. You really do have a video or pop culture reference for all topics, eh? Wish I did! Like I said, though, I could probably find a Dirty Dancing reference for anything out there. Death, hmm? Um. Okay, actually never mind. But there was that old couple that seemed on the VERGE of death and they ended up being thieves (i.e. stealing everyone’s wallets.)

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    • Spock (distracted, listening on the radio): Excuse me, I seem to be receiving a number of distress calls.
      McCoy (totally exasperated): I don’t doubt it.
      🙂 🙂 🙂

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    • Thank you! And, sorry for my delayed reply! This comment got by me, somehow. 🙂 I really enjoy your blog, by the way. Your pictures are amazing and I love how they tie in to what you’re writing about!

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  4. I must admit I don’t think about death much, but when I do I guess I believe in the concept of an afterlife, and that our energy does carry on. What Barnes said about scientists finding no physical evidence of ‘self’ might be true, but for us to state categorically that there is nothing else when there’s still so much about ourselves and our universe that we just don’t understand yet is just arrogant and idiotic. Let’s face it, scientists haven’t always got it right; they’re human too.

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    • Exactly! I don’t agree that there’s ‘nothing’ and I also don’t agree that we can have a dialogue about what exactly happens, because it’s beyond our ‘wiring’ to understand. So that just leaves a whole lot of mystery, and I probably give it all too much thought. (P.S. As you see, my challenge to write short posts while we were in the Canary Islands didn’t quite pan out. I didn’t have much time and stopped writing, altogether.) 🙂

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      • Haha! Well you can always try again – practise practise practise! I’ve written a couple of much shorter posts and really enjoyed it, though I have to admit it felt kind of weird… like… unfinished? Like I hadn’t done it properly? But I had said what I wanted to say, and was happy with it 🙂

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