Saturday, December 31, 2005

The End of the Year of Death

As you may know, 2005 was the Year of Death. Well, that's my name for it anyway. It started for me in December 2004 when my mom died. Then in March, my Aunt June died as well. My family is very small, so the two of them represented a significant percentage of my relatives. But death touched many people in my circle last year: one friend's grandmother, another friend's dad, my mother-in-law's dog, and more. It seemed everyone I knew had someone to add to the memorial list. When you then add all the folks killed during the tsunami and earthquakes in Indonesia, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the earthquake in Pakistan, and wars around the globe...let's just say the Reaper must've installed express elevators to keep up with the flow.

Once I'd run through my store of body-wracking sobs and exhausted myself with keening, I found I couldn't help but find humor everywhere. For example, with my mom and aunt passing away less than two weeks before each of the major catastrophes in Indonesia, I joked that my family members needed to stop dying -- for the sake of the people of South Asia. I got a few shocked looks. I had to remind myself that most people weren't as fluent in death as I'd become. Gallows humor started with the hangman who faced it every day, not the people who scurried home with their eyes averted.

Death seems to cause absurdity to bubble up everywhere. The most absurd experience in my entire life was shopping for an urn for my mother's ashes. We'd decided to get something in colored glass, which she'd always loved. So not only was I looking at shape and color, I also had to estimate how much space she'd take up. The kicker was that this was all taking place in the final shopping days before Christmas, with songs of joy and glad tidings playing on every loudspeaker in every store. I felt as though I were moving in a different gravity field from the rest of the world. In a sense, I was.

And in a heady mixture of the profound and ridiculous not long after June passed away, I discovered that an intense bout of gas made me feel overwhelmingly grateful -- because if I could feel the pain in my gut as I sat there on the toilet, then it meant I was alive.

Perhaps strangest of all is that I find that I'm happier and more content than I've ever been before. Don't misunderstand: in no sense am I happy that my mom and aunt died. Grief can still stop me in my tracks. In October, I stood frozen in the greeting card aisle of a supermarket as it hit me that June and I had traded our last Halloween cards. And I can't make it through my mom's favorite Christmas carols without breaking down entirely.

But the Year of Death seems to have purged much of my fear. It's easier to say what I need to say. I'm more willing to admit when I've screwed up and learn from it. I'm bolder in asking for what I want because I just might get it.

Absurdity pops up around death because it's the thing that keeps us humans honest about living fully. We constantly exist in the midst of that paradox, even as American culture does everything possible to ignore half of the equation. I'm not sure whether to marvel at or mourn a civilization that even has the option of pretending that death doesn't exist.

During 2005, though, I didn't have a choice. I had to let grief wash over me and through me. As the waters subside, I'm left with the sense of soil that has been enriched, like the banks of the Nile. In 2006, I'll find out what will grow.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Haiku and Absolute Freedom

Every December, I set up my Haiku Hut at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's annual Winterfest. I write custom haiku on any subject for people, with the proceeds going to the SFBC. (I look sardonic in this year's picture, but really I was just woozy from a stomach bug that had taken me down hard the day before.)

This is the fourth Winterfest where I've haiku-hutted (did you know that was a verb?), and I love, love, love it. As you'd expect, I get lots of requests for bike-themed haiku, with transit, peace, and cold weather also popular topics. I have a bevvy of repeat customers, too. For example, one fellow has commissioned a haiku each year for his son, with the first one coming a few weeks before the little guy was even born. And I can't count how many people have told me, "I still have that haiku you wrote for me a few years ago! I keep it in my wallet/on my fridge/in my cubicle." There's an art not only to writing the poem itself, but also to discerning the story behind the requested subject. I always know I've done my job if the person gets teary-eyed.

Given that the haiku only cost $2-5 (a rather low-stake investment, and a fundraiser no less!), I'm always touched that people take the process of choosing a subject incredibly seriously. At the same time, a lot of people freeze when faced with choosing what they want from the realm of all possibilities -- they're overwhelmed by the absolute freedom.

I understand that feeling. When I was graduating from college, I didn't have a plan for my next step for quite some time. The story had always gone: "high school, college, Ph.D." But I discovered I didn't want to go on to a Ph.D., at least not in nuclear fusion. (Yes, I really did study nuclear fusion.) I decided at the last possible moment to apply to one M.A. program in English to study Shakespeare (a long-time passion). So between December when the application was due, until late April when I'd hear their decision, I had no idea what the future would hold. What if I didn't get in? In sharp contrast to almost everyone around me, with their grad school or job prospects already lined up, I had nothing.

Even as I was daunted (and occasionally freaked out) by looking out into the void, I also ~s a v o r e d~ it. I could choose. I could explore. I could go in any direction that intrigued me. I had agency. My life had possibilities I'd never even considered before. What a gift to understand this so viscerally at 21.

It's the same reason I don't take my sweetie for granted. When we first met, she had just started a one-year AmeriCorps stint, and she moved into my flat when it was over. I told her that I knew she could do anything, go anywhere -- so the fact that she chose to stay with me meant everything. I still believe we make that choice every day. (Well, maybe less so on grey dreary days, when the inertia of staying snuggled under the covers is pretty darn strong.)

Real freedom and real choice have divinity to them. They call us to bring our authentic selves to the table and take responsibility for the direction of our lives. It was hard at first -- terrifying, at times -- to own up to the fact that I'm the one behind the wheel of this life of mine. (To the extent that anyone is driving at any given moment.) One taste of that wide-openness, though, and there was no going back. You can pretend to go back, or act like you don't know better, but this kind of deep knowledge can't be unlearned. Once I loosened my death-grip on the stories I told myself about what I was "supposed" to do and just followed my energy where it wanted to flow, taking responsibility felt just like freedom.

When people get that panicked look trying to think of a subject for a haiku, I ask them what seems "up" for them lately. Because their authentic selves have been working on something, whether the person knows it consciously or not. There's some corner of their lives where growth is underway. And if they listen to what their lives are trying to tell them, they just might hear poetry.