||[Aug. 26th, 2009|10:37 pm]
|[||Tags|||||casper the friendly ghost, clarissa pinkola estes, cycle, death, einstein, ghost, life, mortality, quantum mechanics, swine flu, tori amos||]|
Wipe the carefree smile off your face; today’s subject is death.
Several months ago I renewed my teenage obsession with the afterlife. I began checking books full of ghost stories out from my library and buying trashy Take a Break Supernatural mags in a very vain effort to send a shiver down my spine. (More about those mags another day, they are the most marvellous compilations ever – not the slightest bit terrifying until they force you to think of the state of humanity!)
I’ve wanted to hear the best, the most convincing ghost stories. I’ve read about the psychology of ghosts; how our evolving society changes the apparitions we see. Once ghosts came to deliver moral warnings to medieval knights on crusade, heavily laced with current political and church doctrine; now they appear wearing hoodies to tell you not to worry you’ll get that job after all, so chin up. Or they try to scare the crap out of you, bring vengeance, or more than likely these days they do not exist at all. After all, if it can not be proven in clinical conditions then WE SHALL DENY.
The best evidence I see for life after death is the first word in that phrase: life. If you have a fairly firm idea of what life entails then half the battle is won when you come to making up your mind about what happens afterwards. I see a spark all over the place; I can hear it crackling and feel it give me tiny electric shocks that remind me of licking the end of a PP3 battery to feel my tongue tingle. I see it in my son, hear it in a sublime melody, and feel it when I drift off into a vivid dream. I taste it in decadently expensive handmade chocolate truffles. I do not see ashes and soot and logically following patterns; in biology and science I see magic and mystery. I have no religion but I am staunch in my belief that there is an electrified golden thread stitching us up in some great tableau of sensation and existence. It is all part and parcel with the wonder of the universe. Quantum mechanics has shown us that our mere observance can change the condition of quantum particles. Einstein, who had a higher capacity for grasping utter madness than most called it “spooky action at a distance”. A beautifully wild and complicated orchid blooming to life, a starburst galaxy and the loving grooming rituals of chimpanzees are all tiny samples carefully preserved in the evidence bags of my mind, proving to me day after day that there truly is more to life than meets the eye. The very existence of all in existence is proof of existence in eternity.
And so to cross to eternity you must pass the threshold of death, and sadly this is almost always a deeply unpleasant experience that is universally dreaded. If you are caught examining the finer points of this most basic facet of life you are accused of being morbid and reading too many vampire novels. If death were your primary course of thought I concur it would signify a problem with balance. However, mixed in with the trivial, entertaining and fleshy I say it’s positively sensible to consider the one thing shared by all of it.
And here I am, dipping my toes in the deep blue sea. In the last two weeks two of my four pet rabbits died, one of nodular myxi (the kind vaccinated rabbits can get) and the other went into stasis from pining after her mate. I’d never held an animal as it died before, and then I did it twice in five days. The day after my first rabbit was put to sleep I came down with the flu – swiftly diagnosed as that of the swine variety. The following week was exhausting and painful, added to the usual merry flu symptoms I had a week of non stop migraine, and Tamiflu made it impossible to complete a thought without drifting off to la-la land. I lay in bed unable to string two words together. Believe it or not this irritated my husband rather than coming as blessed relief.
Having spent the whole week in bed with my laptop for company I haven’t been up to terribly active parenting. I’ve had lots of cuddles with Alex while watching Silly Symphonies on youtube. Then I got the idea to show him Casper the Friendly Ghost – the ones from the 1950’s. We watched the first episode and I became a little nervous. Alex is a sensitive soul and I was worried some of it was actually a little too sad for him. I remembered from my childhood a cheeky happy ghost, but actually Casper is continually alone, crying and rejected; everyone reacts to him with terror and runs away. In one episode I was horrified and at a loss how to explain when Casper lays down on train tracks to attempt suicide, unaware that he could not be killed (again). He then makes friends with a fox who is promptly shot by a hunter. Ferdie the Fox’s ghost does come back to keep Casper company, but a small boy’s ghost burying his best and only friend whilst sobbing is enough to get most mothers choked up.
I watched Alex’s face anxiously while he watched Casper and he was wide eyed, fascinated and instantly addicted. Each time a potentially upsetting scene began and Alex sensed my temptation to talk him through it he put his hand in my face and said “I don’t want you to say any words.” Blame my flu-induced emotional state, but Casper is the ghost of a small fictional boy, 3 or 4 years old, who died at some point pre 1954, and his lingering spirit merely wants love and friends. How sad! Alex’s newfound obsession with Casper brought to mind something else uncomfortable to fret over: Why does my very loved three year old relate to a lonely little ghost who sends all in his path fleeing in horror? Alex usually takes on a character to act out various issues, but they are normally kittens stuck in trees or puppies wanting to play tug-o-war. Now he was Casper and he wanted to reassure me that he was a friendly ghost not out to harm anyone. I’ve always been happy for him to march to his own drummer and he is by no means a terribly typical specimen of boyhood (if such a thing exists), but I really never intended for him to be a tragic pre-schooler. My first and continuing instinct is to not allow him to watch anything heavier than Big Barn Farm but I’ve had a nagging pull at the back of my mind that I need to let him dip his toes in the deep blue sea. He is not banned from Casper but rather than allowing him the marathon he’d like I am ensuring it is sandwiched with nice, cheerful activities to offset the gloom.
Having to explain to a bright and inquisitive three year old why two of his pets have gone away this week, why his Mother was bedridden with flu and why Casper’s fox Ferdie came back transparent was a bit much for my Tamiflu addled brain and there were moments I felt I deserved some sort of “Thinking on your groggy feet” award. I am in no way ready to tackle the subject of death head on with Alex but equally I do not want to raise him with entirely false expectations. Death is a part of life, and in modern life it has all but been erased from our culture. Gone are the days when families prepared a body for burial, nursed the dying in their own homes and observed stringent rituals of mourning. We don’t even necessarily wear black to funerals anymore, let alone for 6 months after the loss of a close relation.
Psychologically we seem to be weaker in some ways than our ancestors were. I wonder if this is in part because when we reach adulthood and the reality of our mortality hits us it comes as a violent shock rather than a gradual realisation of the natural rhythm of the life/death/life cycle.* Speaking for myself, it was having Alex that nailed me down in awareness of my mortal coil. I’d had a pretty clear idea of it pre-motherhood but nothing prepared me for the sight of his veins carrying blood and my heart plummeting each time he nears the edge of a bed. I understood his mortality, and it hit me hard. It reverberated out through my life like a shockwave, colouring all around me in a transient light. I paused and saw my microscopic place on the time line, and a portion of my psyche has remained on pause, still in that place of stillness.
I am grateful my life has been blessed with this little fireball of a child but some days I wish I could rewind him and keep him in my womb forever, so that he is always safe and loved. Resigning yourself to not having total control over your child’s welfare is a process of agony far worse than that of childbirth. I think now looking back that childbirth was just a physical warning of the real battle and pain to come. Praying the world is kind to your most beloved when he is beyond your reach. Wanting peace so that he is not killed in a war, equality so that he can hold his head high amongst all the children in the world, and every child loved so that no child grows up in fearful hurt and bitterness. This is what fear of death has boiled down to in me. It is fear of death hurting Alex, whether that be his or mine or anyone else’s. It could be the death of kindness, of compassion, of vision, of anything that contributes to the preservation of life. Although Alex is my primary love he is thankfully not my only. I love all children better for having known one so well. I feel tapped into a sort of universal mother. I want to save and protect them all.
On the worst day of my gloom last week I thought of the life/death/life cycle and I told myself to look for the regeneration within the death I was seeing in my personal life. This wasn’t just the rabbits, flu and Casper it was the culmination of many personal issues caught up in the ebb and flow of it all. I first found the new life last Saturday afternoon at a rescue for kittens and their mothers. We have had two gorgeous cats, Yin & Yang for 10 years and felt it was time to add to the family. We were introduced to a strange little white kitten, one green eye one bright blue, and deaf as a post. He licked my nose and made me feel happy. We took him home and named him Dewey. His eyes look like morning dew, and Dewey was my much loved Grandpa’s nickname. My Grandpa loved animals and would have heartily approved of a loopy little kitten that chases invisible pixies on my duvet each night. Then I saw my project of featuring a different charity each week as countless examples of regeneration and of people mucking in to make it a better world, an antidote to the headlines of grief and cruelty. Lastly I got the latest Tori Amos album Abnormally Attracted to Sin, mopped the kitchen floor, dusted the whole house and generally tried to clear the air of swiney vibes.
A higher understanding of death has given me zealousness for life, and renewed vigour where apathy had crept in before. Have you ever felt you were in dialogue with death? That it was a pace or two behind you filling the room with a pregnant silence and measuring out the minutes? I have felt that. For a while it drove me to despair and I expect it will again. But in the meantime I count it as a friend, there to remind me of a cycle to which I am capable of contributing.
*See Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book Women Who Run With the Wolves – looking at folklore and ancient stories with a Jungian and deeply feminine twist.