Intimations of Mortality Part 1: Death Song

Caravaggio - John the BaptistMany things in my life have made me think about death recently.  For starters, I work with people who are in their 70s and 80s.  I myself recently turned 30.  I’m realizing how short a jump it is from here to 50.  Then it’s just a hop skip and a jump to old age.  What am I doing with my life?  What have I done?  What will it mean, or matter?

These people whose paisley couches I’m invited to sit on, who tell me about their lives, their careers as engineers at Boeing, or primatologists at the big, shining research hospital in the West Hills, or housewives, or indigent gutter dwellers and swillers of mouthwash whose children are far away and who have been reduced to hobbling in a little circuit, kitchen, bathroom, bed, television; what are they telling me?  What are their lives telling me about how little time we have, and what is really important?

Our culture fears death.  Fears it like no other thing.  But death comes for all men.  I gave a the eulogy for my grandfather last winter, and someday sooner than I think a person I love will give mine.  He is coming for us all, Death, with his blade and his fire and his terrible horse.  How will we meet him?

Stories come down to us of men and women throughout the ages who have not feared death.  Martyrs, saints, heroines of all stripes.  Those who have not seen death as something to be warded off at all costs.  Who have not seen the prospect of death as something that the gods are concerned with.  This is a Christian view.  The Scriptures reveal a God who is not concerned primarily with whether His children live or die, but rather with how they live and how they die.  “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.”  “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Amongst the stories men tell, there are many of warriors in particular, who, in their final moments, or in reflecting on the imminence thereof, are said to have spoken of death.  There is the legend of Crazy Horse, the Lakota Sioux warrior who is said to have stood up in his saddle before battle and screamed “Hokahe!  Le anpetu ki mat’e kin waste ktelo!”, which translates roughly to “Let’s go!  Today is a good day to die!” 

Tekamthi, the Shawnee leader better known to English speakers as Tecumseh, spoke elqouently about death at the end of his famous oration on life.

Live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.  Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.

Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
  Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend,
even a stranger, when in a lonely place.  Show respect to all people and bow to none. When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the food and
 for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and nothing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. 

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts 
are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes
 they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again
 in a different way.  Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

Then there is Ragnar Lodbrok, the Viking chieftain who was executed by being thrown into a pit of vipers, and is said to have sung such a death song in his final moments.

It gladdens me to know that Odin makes ready the benches for a banquet. Soon we shall be drinking ale from the curved horns. The champion who comes into Valhalla does not lament his death. I shall not enter Odin’s hall with words of fear upon my lips. The Æsir will welcome me. Death comes without lamenting.  Eager am I to depart. The Disir summon me home, those whom Odin sends for me, the Valkyries from the halls of the Lord of Hosts. Gladly shall I drink ale in the high-seat with the Æsir. The days of my life are ended. I laugh as I die.

I hope that when the last door draws near, I can walk through like a hero, singing on his way home.

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Thirty

I was having dinner with my brother and wife yesterday, when Jon looked out the window and observed, “The sun has gone down on your twenties.”

Today is my 30th birthday, and I cannot think of a more apt day on which to celebrate that milestone than Thanksgiving. My life is filled with blessing and wonder, love and grace. The last vestiges of boyhood are gone, and manhood has arrived, with all its responsibilities and pleasures. God knows what the next decade will bring, or if I even have a decade left.

I walked out into the living room this morning to find a gigantic poster that my wife had made. A banner really. I’ve always loved the idea of banners. A streaming flag that you fly from your castle and then ride with into battle. May I be found worthy of the banners of justice and mercy during the next ten years, and the next. May I always fight to be on the side of courage and grace, so that when the road ends I can rise up with confidence and walk toward the gates of splendor.

Gilad

Be the mother of thousands, gazelle of my heart.
May the sons of your virginity seize the gate of all who hate them.

– Frederick Buechner’s “Son of Laughter”

It wasn’t that late, maybe eleven o’clock, but my girlfriend had already fallen asleep beside me in bed. I stayed awake for half an hour reading, then decided to check my email one final time before turning out the light. There was a message waiting from my mother, subject line perched like a crow of dread. “Not sure you had heard…”

The message that followed was third hand. Earlier that day one of my oldest friends, a burly, gregarious fellow I grew up playing music with, had shown up for an evening service at my hometown church in tears.

I read the email fearfully, unable to stop scanning yet not wanting to arrive at whatever horrible revelation I could feel rearing up ahead of me. I finally got to the place where my mother explained what had upset my friend so much.

That morning his sister, Sarah (I’ve changed her name) and her husband had woken to find that their young daughter had died during the night. When I read the line where my mother said that their little girl “had not woken up,” I sat up in bed, pole-axed by disbelief.

“What?” I said out loud.

Then I got out of bed, walked into the kitchen, leaned on the sink, and cried.  Sarah was the first girl I ever fell in love with.
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The Three Freed

I cannot claim anything like a comprehensive knowledge of the details surrounding the infamous 1993 triple murder of three 8-year-old boys from West Memphis, Arkansas, whose bodies were found dead and partially mutilated in a drainage ditch in the Robin Hood Hills. I first learned of the crime after hearing “Free the Three,” a stridently opinionated song by the hardcore band Zao.

The song’s title is a reference to the three men eventually convicted of having committed the murders as part of a Satanic ritual; Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin, who came to be known as The West Memphis Three. The chorus features vocalist Dan Weyandt repeating the phrase, “You lie, you lie, you lie and they pay.” Not too objective, but visceral and compelling.

Echols was condemned to die for the crime, and Misskelley and Baldwin received life sentences, despite serious allegations of a mishandled investigation, limited forensic evidence, and a jury foreman apparently hell-bent to convict. Certain members of the victims’ families subsequently came to doubt the guilt of the men serving time for their sons’ murders.

Today, in a surprising and emotional reversal, the West Memphis Three were released from prison. It is difficult for me to imagine a more hopeless scenario than being wrongly imprisoned and sentenced to a death for a crime one did not commit. I wonder how Dan Weyandt feels today.

John Rember

My girlfriend’s parents gave me a book for Christmas. It had a stranger cover and a less than compelling title: MFA In A Box. I cracked it anyway, and proceeded to fall in love with a writer as funny as he is bleak; John Rember.

I’ve followed Mr. Rember’s column on writing, which he produces from his home in Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley, for a few months now. The following excerpt, from an autobiographical essay by Mr. Rember is indicative of the mixture of hilarious candor and self-described aprés moi le deluge cynicism he employs to such withering effect. The man’s writing is compelling, bracing, and more than a little bit sad.


A few years ago I started writing a monthly column for a paper in Ketchum, Idaho. For some time I’ve been an après moi le deluge kind of guy, although for me the deluge wasn’t nuclear, biological, or chemical. I just thought, based on my teaching experience, that secondary education was getting worse and worse in this country, and that a tsunami of over-enthusiastic mouthbreathers — eruptus adenoidae erectus in the literature — was going to make it impossible for civilization to function. More and more it looked like morons were the only people running things, mostly because they were the only people with simple enough world-views to want to.

Anyway, I called my column End Notes, because I could Google “End of Days” and have my pick of four million or so apocalyptic stories. Jesus was riding in at the head of an angel hit squad, or a 14-mile-long asteroid was about to crash into Los Angeles, or the Star-spawn of the Dread Cthulhu was rising out of the Marianas Trench. These things were fun to write about and fun to make fun of, but after a year or so the Doom of the Month Club turned mean.

Jim Kunstler’s The Long Emergency and Jared Diamond’s Collapse were the books that started me researching and reading Richard Heinberg, Dmitri Orlov, John Michael Greer, Guy McPherson, and William Catton. Charles Hugh Smith graphically educated me on economic collapse. All these writers are to the future like blind men are to an elephant, each grasping their sure bit of truth. My late arrival to the party allowed me the benefit of multiple perspectives on the beast.

But it was the credit crisis of 2008 and the subsequent frenzy of incompetence by our elected officials that finally convinced me that Julie’s and my carefully-chosen annuity-and-Internet-fueled rural niche, the one that was supposed to last us the rest of our childless lives, wasn’t going to work out as planned. Our savings would become worthless. The electricity would go out. We’d freeze to death in the dark. Marauding hordes would shoot us as we escaped the house they had set on fire.

I made jokes. “I’m in favor of marauding hoards,” I said. “Let the food, gold, and ammo come to us.”

Malick’s Tree of Life

The folks at The Other Journal were good enough to publish my thoughts on Terrence Malick’s latest film, the much publicized “Tree of Life.” I’m flattered. Apparently mine is the first of a three part series. I’m curious as to whether the ensuing two pieces will take me to task. I’m way out in the minority with my opinion of the film.

If you never got a chance to examine the film’s companion website, click the image above.

The Suspense Is Killing Me. I Hope It Lasts.

Amongst our arsenal of modern technologies the internet is unique on a number of levels, one of the most obvious being its scale. The net’s sheer ubiquity, particularly in the West, as well its de-centralized structure have made it a great equalizer, a giant killer even, despite varying levels of accessibility in the developing world. The growth in government and corporate accountability that the internet has facilitated has been but one of many ways in which it has measurably advanced the common good. Others include profound advances in convenience, freedom of movement, employment opportunities and the potential for greening our economies.

In addition to facilitating all of this good the WWW has also been a harbinger of much that is insidious. Of course, as an inanimate network the internet itself cannot be held culpable for the abuses and changes it has wrought on our social and geopolitical landscapes, most of which are the result of good old-fashioned choices.

One of the most egregious examples of these is that way in which the web has delivered to us the opportunity to rob ourselves of the intoxicating pleasures of mystery.

If you attended rock and roll shows with any regularity before the turn of the millennium you’ll recall the experience of showing up to see a band you loved and not being sure what they would look like. You might have seen a few images of them in liner note photographs, perhaps the occasional poster or magazine profile. But even album-specific promotional shots were often dated by the time the band went on tour.

I can still vividly recall the first time I saw the heavy metal band Zao play a concert after singer Dan Weyandt had rejoined the group. It’d been a couple years since the band had released their devastating Liberate Te Ex Inferis LP. When that album came out Weyandt had still been in his rockabilly greaser phase—hair tightly pomped, biceps rippling beneath vintage cowboy shirts. Drummer Jesse Smith had been experimenting with an androgynous look that featured nail polish, eye shadow, and a penchant for hydrogen peroxide.

When they finally came out on the stage at Slim’s that night to set up their equipment I saw that Dan had new neck tattoos and was growing his hair out. He was already several hard miles down the road of his transformation from harrowingly beautiful 19 year-old punk rock icon with porcelain skin into the haggard, zombie-obsessed patron saint of heavy metal burnouts that he would become. The trucking company t-shirt he wore did nothing to conceal his growing paunch. Jesse, for his part, appeared sporting an ungelled mohawk, worn cowboy boots, and jeans that laced up at the crotch.

I’ll never forget the sound of some other fan screaming in delirious excitement as Weyandt appeared onstage to help move an amplifier or two.

“Fuck yeah! Fuck yeah! Dan! Yeah! I drove from Missouri for this!”

We were in San Francisco.

Nowadays our sense of anticipation is easily lost. It’s not difficult to burst the fragile zeppelin of suspense when one can stand at the bar ten minutes before the show and scroll through dozens of photographs and videos of an artist’s performance from the previous night of the tour. That cool backdrop they made especially for this tour? The light show? The choreographed dance moves? You’ll see it all coming. We’ve reached a situation in which instant gratification is the norm, and the pleasure of having things revealed gradually or even in a blaze of unexpected glory (like that time the guy from The Darkness surprised everybody by appearing for his penultimate guitar solo riding atop an animatronic tiger) is in danger of being lost.

Given my own capacity to dilute the thrill of anticipation, I’ve come to actually respect those artists who don’t update their websites with regularity. They heighten my sense of pleasure while delivering me from my own lack of self control. If it was up to my most impulsive self I’d know everything there was to know about an album, a tour, an artist’s most recent meal, at a moment’s notice.

But wait a minute, that sounds familiar. Many artists gleefully manipulate the joystick of their romping publicity machines with cavalier disregard for their own privacy, let alone the capacity or appetite of their audience to take in (or care about) the amount of information they’re being given. Madonna used to reinvent herself once an album cycle. Lady Gaga reinvents herself every day, sometimes more than once.

I once walked into a restaurant venue for dinner and ended up sticking around for a show headlined by a band called Six Organs of Admittance on nothing but a whim and the strength of my waiter’s recommendation. I’d never heard of them. Them turned out to be him, a guy named Ben Chasny who, along with a drummer and a third fellow who could be vaguely described as a “sound manipulator” proceeded to rip through one of the most primal sets I’d ever witnessed, incendiary and tender in equal measure.

Since that night I’ve been intrigued by Chasny but haven’t been able to learn much about him. He doesn’t update his website much. He’ll go weeks or months without touching the thing. His bio is outdated, he doesn’t have current pictures, he doesn’t always post his tour dates.

I was speaking with a fashion designer several months ago about the pressure she felt to connect with her prospective audience, to manipulate Twitter, Facebook, and a video blog, all toward the end of staying present in the consciousness of potential consumers. Chasny seems to have ignored that pressure. He refuses to accept the mantle of the new norm, in which you’re expected to fight to keep yourself in the spotlight of a culture afflicted with terminal ADHD.

It’s the same principle at work in a song with a chorus you absolutely love but which only occurs once or twice. You have to wait for it, yearn for it. At least, as Arcade Fire points out, “we used to wait for it.” We used to have to. The radio wouldn’t let us pause or go back, and resetting the needle on our record player or rewinding the cassette was too much of a hassle. Now we just click our mouse or tap a key and we’re back at the chorus.

When Willy Wonka uttered the words from which this essay takes its title, however firmly his tongue may have been planted in his cheek, he revealed author Roald Dahl’s understanding of the danger we face in sacrificing the pleasures of mystery on the twin altars of immediacy and the illusion of the possibility of absolute knowledge. Will the hero get the girl? Will my favorite guitarist show up onstage with an incredible new rig? Will my night out be a huge success or a total failure? I could look up every frickin’ bartender in the city on Yelp and try to hedge my bets, or I could take a chance on a restaurant, a band, a book, a movie… hell, even a person.

My friend Dan is a tattoo artist. At one point during a long conversation we had a few months ago he described his desire for people to be able to come into his shop and have something of a magical experience.

“Tattoo shops always had a showmanship aspect. When I was first getting tattooed it was a little bit of a magic show also. And I liked that about it. I hope that whatever tattoo shop I work in doesn’t lose that. I hope I don’t lose that. Mike Malone, who’s a really famous tattooer in the United States, said, ‘We all come from the carnival.’ And I like that. I want it to feel kind of fun, like the tattoo shop is outside of any other place you’re going to go to. You’re not going to go to any other store and hear the people talk like that. It’s still kind of a free zone hopefully, and kind of a magic place for people still. I know it’s hard, like we talked about before, how the cat’s out of the bag; anyone can go on the internet and find out anything they want to know about tattooing. All the explanations for all the magic are out there. But hopefully for some people it’ll still have a little of that magical, cool experience.”

The next time I ask you a question which will surely be answered if I just wait a little, just have a little patience… please, don’t tell me. I don’t really want to know.