The Dying Art

It was an absolutely delicious day on Monday. As I began to write, the bell chime was about to fly off the porch. It’s been serenading the neighborhood for a week and now it has hit crescendo. Just as wonderful for me are the smudges of blue, gray and white in the sky. If you look close you can imagine pastels and chalky fingers, smudges all over this sky-canvas. I love days like this.

I’ve been reading a book called The Art of Dying Well. It could just as easily be called The Art of Living Well. So much to consider and plan for. In my world, I have leaned heavily on the idea that our marriage will replace the need for planning, but that is not the case. There is so much more than what the laws of community property afford us. 

Of course, this gets me to thinking about my own longevity; how I understand it and how I ultimately feel about it. People think I’m being pessimistic, or worse, fatalistic when I talk about what a good death looks like to me. They are equally uncomfortable hearing that my focus will always be on quality and not quantity of life. For such an inevitable thing for all of us, we really should talk about it a lot more than we do.

Even if medication continues to keep my RA symptoms arrested, it almost certainly will cause damage to the other systems supporting me. There is a likelihood that this disease will take years off of my projected life span (and that is without this new risk of Covid), so that is how I’m planning. I like to see that as realistic and not the contrary. In fact, I think it’s irresponsible not to acknowledge well documented facts. 

I’ve witnessed a lot of dying in the past five years and I’m beginning to see planning in a whole new light. In this book are suggestions for each phase we find ourselves in and what steps we can take to keep the quality of our lives high as we age: 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. We can choose to do it wisely and gracefully, or not. It comes down to paying attention and recognizing where you are on your own arc. Maybe it’s an arc of health and maybe it’s an arc of illness, but either way it makes sense to sketch it out and tell the truth about it. 

Considering my own arc, I would do well to start actually getting rid of things that no longer serve a meaningful purpose. I can give some away, I can throw some away, I can recycle some, repurpose some and maybe even sell some. The important thing is to actually begin. I wrote a post months ago about “Dostadning” or Swedish death cleaning. It isn’t as morbid as it sounds. It’s actually an act of love. Stuff equals stress, and who needs it?

Beyond these very practical suggestions are the nagging feelings I have about life and death. There have been so many unexplained and unpredictable losses in these last five years that I’m left reeling. Those who left too early had dreams too. Probably many of them had set aside money and resources for “someday” or for:

●When I retire. 
●When I finish the book/painting/project
●When I feel stronger. 
●When the weather improves. 
●When the pandemic is over … 

As I begin the process of letting things go, I am preparing a mental list of things I want to remember. I’ve seen what a poor death looks like up close. I’ve seen what happens when you fail to plan. I’ve lived the words (often attributed to Buddha) that say “The trouble is, you think you have time …” 

We have today. Just that. Today.

My lists aren’t so much plans as they are reminders of what memory has jogged. Reminders about where to set the GPS and where to aim the sails. Reminders of the different stages of twilight and phases of the moon. Reminders to wake up and inhale. The rest takes care of itself. 

I won’t pretend to be good at this stuff. I dig through a box and conjure the exact feeling I had when I stuffed things in there in there in the first place. I am developing a stronger practice of letting go. It’s like snipping the string holding the kite and … away it flies. (And yes, I actually have a pretty neat kite if anyone would like to have it).

                                 *****     

Yesterday I jumped back in and tried to make sense of what I seem determined to keep in those boxes. So much of it I’ve had for 40 years or more. Magazines, newspapers, artwork and papers from school. I have one big plastic bin full of nothing but small boxes that I keep just because they are good boxes. 

I have a large shadow box that I can use to hold trinkets of the past, small treasures. Most of it is just “stuff” though. I am holding on for all the wrong reasons. I have a pretty full recycle bin this morning. And several tubs ready for the thrift store. As I round the corner toward 60, planning now will mean less stress in the decades ahead.

I’m off this morning to enjoy sunrise at Mount St Helens. It feels like ages since I’ve been out and I’ve been saving my 100th WTA trip report for something special. I am hopeful today is that day.

Horned Lark

In early June I saw my first horned lark foraging just off the Truman Trail. I’m not sure who might be lingering at the mountain this time of year but I’m excited to find out. The road is still open to Johnston Ridge (I think) and I should probably expect snow on my travels. I’ll be safe. And attentive. The two things that come as close to guarantees that I have in my life. 

Happy Hump Day. 
I can’t wait to share what I see !

2020
2020
Cold and blustery in 2020 !

17 Comments on “The Dying Art

  1. “For such an inevitable thing for all of us, we really should talk about it a lot more than we do.” I completely agree. Thank you for this post. I mean, thank you so much. I want to read this book – anything – to get me into action in preparing for my death. My kid Tara lost their father this spring – completely unexpected. He had no will, and hadn’t even talked about his wishes to anyone. Tara was left as next of kin to try and handle everything on their own, at age 23, and of course I tried to do what I could but it made it so clear to me that I don’t want to do this to them too. I also have no will, nothing organized, and it’s so important, I see that now. I’ve been telling myself since May to get going, but it’s a swirl to me. This book sounds like it would help me figure out at least a few things to consider, which would help me begin.

    I am very interested in this purging plan that you have started. I am good at that. I’m good at getting rid of things. But I just need to actually do it. Boxes full of smaller boxes!! ha!! me too. It was no accident that I read your post. <3

    Your 100 WTA report – that's so great. Congratulations. Too bad the weather was unhelpful. Great shot of the horned lark with a grub!

    • I can’t recommend the book enough. If you’re over 50, there’s at least one chapter for you. I figure I will benefit from many of them. These are sound ideas that can be the beginnings of a really meaningful checklist. It’s really good. I listened to the audio and bought the paperback before I even finished, knowing I would take my highlighter to it ! As for my WTA trip report ? I’ll give it another week and then head out for a Cascades hike that will be my 100th (unless I can get back to the mountain sooner).

  2. My ancestors on my mother’s side of the family are Swedish. I never learned any part of that Swedish Death Cleaning until I read your earlier post about the custom. Last year when I moved to Thurston County, the week before the governor issued the statewide shut down, I thought I would have plenty of time at home to unpack and purge things. The box piles are smaller, but I really hope to have things sorted out sooner rather than later. A few favorite things I’ve found were from my teaching career. A small note from two 5th grade boys: “We are really sorry for our behavior when the principal was in the room. We hope we didn’t get you fired.” They put a nice piece of rose quartz on my desk and a tin of peanut M & Ms with that note. The other ‘treasure’ was a picture of one of my fourth grade students with Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s daughter. The student wrote an essay for a student contest sponsored by Major League Baseball. He won first prize for talking about his vision. When he was two an eye was removed because the pupil would not close. As he described it, “My pupil looked like a broken egg yolk.” I let the student read the email that came from MLB about his first place award. When I asked him if he wanted to reply to Sharon’s email he was amazed. I typed as he dictated his short message. After he hit the send button a reply from Sharon arrived in minutes. The email said, “Please tell Martin that we will be coming to his classroom.” I asked Martin if he wanted her visit to be in our classroom or would he like to have an all school assembly. He reply was priceless! “Miss Bryson everyone needs to know who this woman is.” He took the printed email to the office and asked the principal it she would have an assembly that day.

    Finding memories like that will give me peace at the end of my life.

    • Ah yes, there are memories I will take with me too. Occasionally I come across a thing that is small, but holds a big memory. Those things I keep for me. Memory is important but “stuff” can be stressful. I’m on a mission.

  3. Love this. (And yes, that last pic is so great, especially given the topic.) This is the second day in a row someone has mentioned Swedish death cleaning, so there’s a message there, though my load is fairly light. Death seems to be the topic in my writing that everything comes around to eventually. I could be writing about rainbows and lollipops, and ooooh, there’s death taunting me from the doorway. Enjoy your wandering days.

    • Oh, I love the wandering days (and the song you sent was fabulous!). I got another dent in the “stuff” the other day but until it actually leaves the garage, I’m at risk of changing my mind. I don’t think it’s unusual that we seem to gravitate towards death. We are hard-wired for closure and it’s rather delusional to ignore it.

  4. Ah, Bon! I applaud your ambition to lighten the house load, the head load, the memory load… I have come to the realization that I cannot do it, not without a nag. When dear Aunt Josie was alive, she would drag me into a room where stuff was multiplying like that scene from a Harry Potter movie, where anything touched immediately doubled ad infinitum. We would parse and purge all day long, straightening up as we purged. Josie is long gone and I am left to my own proliferating mess. Surely there must be a 12-step program, or magic genie to help???

    AND as I am a decade older than you are, the spectre of leaving all this hazarai for someone else to dispose of is downright shame-inducing. Thanks for the nudge…*

    • It’s less ambition and more necessity, but I appreciate the thought for sure. Sounds like your home could use a little “tough love”. Should I plan a springtime visit to come and help you ?

  5. In the end, it is experiences and not things that matter, although because my husband and I moved from a house to an apartment just two years before his death, we did curate our belongings. In addition to trying to provide him with a “good death” whatever that means (and I’m still not sure — because wow death is hard, for the dying and the living) we tried to provide me with a “good survivorship.” Some of that was practical stuff — passwords, legal and financial things — some was just the knowledge that I had taken good care of him, loved him fiercely. Since his passing, looking through the things he saved when we moved has given me a whole new sense of him, the private part of him that even after many years of being together still was mysterious, and enchanting.

    • The book was so good at trying to define the difference between a good death and a poor one. I don’t believe it can ever be thought of as easy. What you wrote about what your husband had chosen to keep, stopped me in tracks. It made me understand even more about the importance of losing the insignificant “stuff” that can clutter our lives. There’s a quote I modify a bit to say: “Tell me (what) you love and I’ll tell you who you are”. I know how sad you must be. I also marvel a bit about how beautiful it is that he continues to enchant you ♡

  6. A really great post. A really great book. I’m reading the tiny book, “The Cafe On the Edge of the World.” Which has a really great title. About how silly we humans are to work hard at work we don’t love and buy stuff we don’t need to make up for and have to work harder at what we don’t love so we can pay for it and live for the day we can retire and do what we want. But then of course, we could die, because dying is part of life even if you pretend it’s not. The sooner one accepts that, the sooner they will start living. Like you have! Mush on, through the snow. (I also love the book, “They Left Us Everything,” by Plum Johnson. Sometimes leaving stuff behind is a gift. But yeah, my parents could have been a bit less generous.)

    • I’ll have to check out both of those books. Thanks for recommending The Art of Dying Well. It felt pivotal somehow, like, as I approach this next decade I need to be prepared differently. I’ve talked a lot, but actually done very little. I feel like acknowledging the inevitable is just the first step. With no kids to help later, I would be wise to do all I can now, while I’m still of sound mind and body to do it. It’s true : The trouble is, we think we have time …

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