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Halloween, death, and also life

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I have always liked Halloween. I grew up Catholic, and Halloween is followed two days later by All Souls’ Day. That time also includes El Día de Muertos. It is a time for thinking about death and those who have gone into it.

I have been aware of mortality–my own, and everyone’s around me–from a very young age. A cousin died at 10, when I was 2; I don’t know when I first became aware of it, but I was pretty young. (My earliest memory is sitting in our car and seeing her come to the hospital window to wave.) My grandfather, whom I loved dearly, died when I was 5. My newborn baby brother died when I was 6. (I have a photo of him in his coffin.) A classmate and her younger sister and another child were killed in a car accident the summer after we were in fourth grade. My best friend’s 16-year-old brother was killed in a diving accident when we were about 12.

When I was 5, and again when I was 7, I was seriously ill. I didn’t, I think, know at the time that I might die, but I wasn’t much older before I did realize that I could have. In a way, I think of every day I have had since then as lagniappe.

Death and the possibility of what comes after has always interested me. Being raised as a believer, I envisioned heaven, but I gave that up along with everything else theistic decades ago. The idea of some kind of “survival” after death, however, has continued to fascinate me.

I like cemeteries. So does our younger daughter. Both of us are interested in death, and neither of us fears it. She was quite young when she first told me she wasn’t afraid to die. (This isn’t “nature,” as she is adopted, and while I “nurtured” her interest and acceptance, I don’t think I initiated it.) For me, cemeteries do represent a kind of afterlife; as long as someone, even a stranger taking pictures or doing genealogy, recognizes one’s having existed, one is still “present,” in a sense, in the world. I acknowledge the reasons for not continuing with the burial-and-monument tradition, and I specify cremation for myself for those reasons, but I deeply regret the loss.

I mentioned genealogy there–that’s another of my interests. One of the commercials for Ancestry has a young man saying that you start to feel that you know the people you “meet” in researching, and I agree. For me, it isn’t just knowing “where I come from” except in a very general sense of coming from every human who came before me. The story of how we got to where we are has given me many of my other interests and hobbies throughout my life: studying California history, collecting old bottles (and especially digging for or otherwise finding them in situ), joining historical societies, visiting historical museums, collecting old things in general, exploring ghost towns, reading about the Old West…endless.

In a real sense, the dead are not dead to me, because I picture them (sometimes with literal pictures), I imagine their lives (from their writings or things they left behind), I treasure possessions they once treasured or maybe just used in daily life and discarded. This has helped me, I think, to see a common humanity in everyone–something I have felt from a very young age.

I neither believe nor disbelieve in ghosts. The word “ghost” can mean many things. Energy of some form that can be sensed by some living people under some circumstances–I think that’s a possibility. I have experienced some sensitivity to certain places and one very early odd experience, and people whose reports I trust have had experiences that hint at something we can’t otherwise explain. I don’t think that entities conscious of their “being” as the human they were exist, but I like to read fiction that tells how such existence might play out–and who knows?

As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are all star stuff. Before we were conceived, the energy and/or material for our existence was there, and after we die some of it persists in some form. That’s enough for me.

The right to die

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Upfront: I do not want to have a religion-based discussion. That is another topic for elsewhere. And I will delete any incivility.

I understand, I think, the concerns of people who have disabilities or have loved ones who do, regarding the “right to die” (in whatever guise). But I always come back to this: who has more right to say whether a life is worth living than the person living that life ?

Unfortunately, the only metaphor I have come up with to make this point is able-ist, but because it is based on a well-known saying, I am going to use it here: we may try to walk in another’s shoes, but we can never walk with another’s feet. We can never truly know another’s pain (or lack of it); we can only know what ours is in the same situation (or even more remotely, what we think ours would be in the same situation).

Yes, societal forces can pressure people in making the decision to die. But if the problem is societal forces that pressure a person to die who might otherwise not choose to, is the answer to build societal forces that pressure the person NOT to die, even if it is what the person wants?

Yes, acknowledging a right to die can lead to a slippery slope by which people with disabilities are pressured to die. But does taking away the right to die from those who want to exercise it increase the rights of people who would choose to die because of societal forces rather than personal choice?

Yes, one can view acknowledgment of the right of disabled people to kill themselves as telling others that death is better than disability. But that view is wrong. One person’s choice, even many people’s choices, does not equal universal truth. An individual’s choice is exactly that: one person’s choice, as the person lives an individual life in an individual body.

I don’t understand how anyone can be pro-choice regarding abortion and anti-choice regarding the right to die. For that matter, I don’t understand how anyone can be anti-slavery and also anti-right-to-die. All are about ultimate bodily autonomy.

In a real sense, if society controls my death, it also controls my life.

Musing on Mortality, or Life, Death, the Universe, and Everything

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(Long-time readers of my LiveJournal may have deja vu at some of my blog entries, as I am recycling and combining some old LJ entries.)

A certain portion of the boomer generation–generally in the higher socioeconomic classes–seems to think that if one just eats the right things in the right amounts, does the right amount and kind of exercise, has the right amount and kind of sex with the right partner, and so on, one can live forever. It’s a sociological phenomenon that I don’t read or hear much comment on, and it’s very obvious to me that it exists.

Where does it come from? Is it the mindset of wanting more-more-more, and when one reaches a certain level materially, one turns to time, longer-longer-longer? Is it that we’re Americans, by god, and we can do anything we put our minds to? Or is it me-first-ism gone crazy? I am all that matters, I am the center of the universe, the world must always contain ME?

Who are we, that we think we should live forever? That we should continue to take up resources beyond the span that humans have always considered appropriate? (Note that this is a rhetorical “we.” I most certainly do not think this.) Is this the foreseeable outgrowth of our voracious consumption of all the natural resources we want, with no concern for future generations?

Don’t I want to live forever? Sure, in the abstract. It makes me sad to think that I won’t know how it all turns out, both for humanity at large and for my own children and their children (should they have any). But if we all lived forever, humanity would have to stop reproducing (imagine a world with all of today’s population plus its descendants for a couple of generations, all still alive and continuing to reproduce!). Not only would we lose any possibility of having new brains think of new things, but our children or grandchildren–whatever point we stopped reproduction at–would never be able to choose whether to be parents. Everything in society that relates to childhood or the teenage years would disappear, as the last generation moved into adulthood. We might care more about “the future,” because now it would be our own future, but that would simply exacerbate the self-centeredness. To me, this is not a pretty picture.

No, I think the system humankind has always had–you’re born, you grow, perhaps you reproduce, you get old, you die–is better. I’ll accept my part in the circle of life–and death.

I have been aware of mortality–my own, and everyone’s around me–from a very young age. A cousin died at 10, when I was 2; I don’t know when I first became aware of it, but I was pretty young. My grandfather, whom I loved dearly, died when I was 5. My newborn baby brother died when I was 6. A classmate and her younger sister and another child were killed in a car accident the summer after we were in fourth grade. My best friend’s 16-year-old brother was killed in a diving accident when we were about 12.

When I was 5, and again when I was 7, I was seriously ill. I didn’t, I think, realize at the time that I might die, but I wasn’t much older before I did realize that I could have. In a way, I think of every day I have had since then as lagniappe. So I have tried to live my life as much in the present as I can. I plan ahead when it is necessary or wise, but I don’t generally envision myself doing or being thus-and-so. Each day is enough of a gift and enough of a challenge to satisfy me. I think this ties in, too, with why I like–and try to live by–the Starfish Story. If I can make a difference to that one, right here and now, I’ll try to do it, because there’s never any guarantee that I will make it to the next one–or that the next one will make it there to be helped by me.

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