Living With Death

I have always loved the early-morning sound of the snow plow, cruising down the road clearing snow. As a kid on Eureka Avenue in Saratoga Springs, it meant that there was a chance that school would be cancelled that day. It was a hopeful sound. As a grown-up, it just makes me happy. It means it was snowing in the night while I was sleeping, and I still love snow. I really do. I think it's magical and beautiful. It brings calm after the riotous chaos of vegetables and flowers and the deep greens and long days of summer. It blankets the earth in a quiet we all desperately need. 

I live on a short dirt road now, so the plow doesn't just go cruising past, as in places I lived previously; the big truck actually has to turn around just after my home and then whoosh by again — two for the price of one. 

Is it just me or does it feel, as we get older, like the things we loved as kids are that much more precious? Almost like...those simple little joys are coming around again, to be savored some more from the perch of...I understand that I won't be here forever. 

The other great thing about the road I live on now is that lots of dead people are here. There is a cemetery across the street and one to the south of this house. I walk through them frequently and I talk with my dead neighbors every day. "Hello all you dead people! Happy New Year!" I tell them. Or, sometimes...listen up, all you dead people, I need your help. Some of them I knew when they were alive, but most of them died a long time ago and so I imagine who they were and how they lived. They make lovely neighbors, the dead, especially since they are reminders of where we are all headed: you might be standing here on the porch today, Melissa, but eventually you'll be joining all your neighbors wherever the dead go.

I'm a hospice chaplain, so I spend lots of time in the company of those who have been told they are going to die. The rest of us know that to be the truth, but most people don't want to talk about it. I know death pretty well by now. Still, I'm grateful for my neighbors and the silent message they impart every single day.

Recently Coco and I watched a documentary called At The Fork. I recommend it. It's the story of a man and his (vegetarian) wife's journey to discover more about how the meat we eat is raised and slaughtered. I found myself, for the first time, embarrassingly, seeing cows and pigs and chickens for what they really are: living creatures with a soul. I had never thought about how they might be afraid or how they might suffer in their final hours. About how they might prefer to stay alive rather than die, to land on my dinner plate. I was a little ashamed that I have been, all these years, able to compartmentalize these animals as not very attractive or interesting or worthy; how I have been able to rationalize their demise simply because they are so delicious and because...it's what we do...we're people; we eat meat!

I love meat, but for the first time I began to think that maybe it wasn't so great that an animal had to be executed so I could enjoy a meal. And I began thinking that I might eat less meat or stop eating it altogether. Not in a taking-a-stance or feeling-clever kind of way, but rather from a place of quiet, personal reverence for another living thing.

You know, the way kids take good care of animals? The way we all loved all things when we were young? 

Then I thought...great...I don't drink or smoke. I don't gamble or go out much. I go to church on Sundays and visit old ladies in the nursing home. If I stop eating meat, the only remaining vice I'll have is picking my nose. What have I become?!

The pseudo-depression lasted about a minute, however. I thought for that minute that maybe my life was shutting down; that all of the things I used to like and do are gone. And then I remembered...being drunk isn't all that fun after the age of 25, and cows and chickens and pigs might not be all that pretty, but they have a heart, like you and me. They make friends with each other and they enjoy the outdoors. They like living here, too. And I realized that the choices I'm making or thinking about making are actually expansive. That to love all things and to treat them with respect, to keep a clear head, these choices don't cause a life to contract; on the contrary, they make us bigger, more available to take care of this place and each other. If I can love a chicken then I can love the farmer who cares for that chicken, and the person who chooses to eat it even if I don't. If I can love a chicken and the bug a chicken eats and the snowflake that falls on the barn, then maybe I can learn to love a person who is making my life difficult, or a person who thinks differently than I. It's a good starting place, anyway.

We're not here for very long. I have a hunch we're supposed to live lives of expansion. And, quite oddly, sometimes that means doing some subtraction.

Many blessings for a beautiful new year. May you walk hand in hand with the truth and beauty of death and of life and find peace in knowing it is all and we are all deeply connected. Amen.