This morning I was out on the rear deck doing the yoga I do to keep at bay the aches and pains earned by living a half-century on this planet. As I did my sun salutation I noticed a little plant that had grown up in the crevice where the deck meets the house. I figured I should pull it up right away. Its small roots were probably digging down into the moist wood at that spot.
But I decided to leave it, admiring its impudence and knowing the growing autumn would wilt it very soon. This small weed had made me aware of a simple fact: my deck, indeed my whole house, is made of dead wood. In nature dead wood is supposed to be recycled into the biome, the natural give and take of living things. How odd that this particular stack of wood should remain outside that process. At that moment a carpenter ant meandered across my deck to her hidden nest in the beams of the house.
The day before, I had been admiring the handiwork of the "breaker downers" on a huge pine trunk in the woods at the edge of the yard. What had been hard pith and cambium was now a porridge of orange crumbs, rendered into mulch by millipedes, pill bugs, ants, termites, fungi, and invisible bacteria. This was delightful. I was thinking I could use some of this stuff on my garden, or if not, that it would make fertile ground for the next generation of wildflowers and shrubs. It also seems a small miracle that the leaves, pulled weeds, and kitchen scraps in our compost heap become rich soil for next season.
So today I am very aware of my chauvinism. I resent the "blight" that spots the leaves of my roses, the "blossom end rot" that wilts the zucchini before it has time to grow into a small green club, or the corn borer that nests in an otherwise "perfect" ear. But I’m growing more aware of the irony of my actions. I wait until a tomato is perfect, round, and ripe only to chop it into pieces for my salad. I resent the leaves of bok choy that wilt before they are ripe, but then I harvest a half-dozen unwilted plants and stir-fry and consume them in a sitting.
It is pretty obvious that decay and death are OK as long as they’re not personal. The insects can demolish God’s tree but not my house. Of course that goes double for my body or the bodies of those close to me. My wife, who is a physician, and a cancer specialist to boot, often hears a lament from her patients and their families. Though the patient may be an octogen-arian with a full life, the question still comes. "I have been healthy all my life. I hardly ever see a doctor. Why do I have this disease now?"
What is the answer? My wife may have none that truly satisfies the patient. It is not the role of the doctor to discuss whether a healthy, pious life receives any guarantee from Divinity that decay will not occur. (And—in fairness to her patients—my wife will come home from pulling people back from the edge of terminal illness only to complain about the unfairness of a stomach ache.)
We cannot avoid this kind of thought. After all, we are homo sapiens, "the creatures who know." Compared to our fellow creatures we alone (as far as we know) can see the progress of our illness or death, can imagine it coming, can envision the possibility that it might come. Think of the key element of the horror stories we tell ourselves to inoculate against the fear: "caught below decks in a sinking ship with the water rising"; "tied to the railroad tracks with the train bearing down"; "trapped in the haunted house with a monster on the loose"; or "invaded by alien entities."
It is tempting to pray to God to fix us when we are broken. It is comforting to think that living a kind, generous, worshipful life is an insurance policy against arthritis, automobile accidents, and pimples. But in my experience the Divine Spirit does not fix what needs to be broken. If it is useful for us to heal and go on, and we make a strong effort to heal ourselves and each other, it seems we often get that extra boost.
It becomes more and more clear as I grow older that I am part of the deep process of nurturing the next generation with my life. My death will also be necessary for their survival, though I have a less clear vision of that. Because we humans can see and therefore fear and even hate our decay and death, we try to live antiseptic lives, keeping the antibacterial soap at hand and the plumbing sparkling, inside and out.
Years ago I visited a reconstruction of a Native American community in Washington, Connecticut. What was remarkable was that the house, the hogan, was virtually in the ground. The floor was earth. The walls, though covered over with bark, had cracks and crannies where small animals, insects, and the weather could come in. It was clear that the Native Americans lived cheek by jowl with the other creatures of the land. Birth, death, and daily living with all its fleas happened in the same place.
The European American style is to protect ourselves against these realities. Most births take place in antiseptic rooms. We isolate the dying. We treat any infirmity as an injustice. Illness is no excuse not to work (ironically, spreading diseases further in the workplace). Even after we are gone we insulate our bodies from recycling in triple-layered metal boxes.
It is hard but useful to remember that the blessing of life is the blessing of death. A communion meal celebrates the nourishment of our lives but also the passing on of the grain for the bread, the grapes for the wine, the bird or beast for the main course, each vegetable for the side dishes. If we thank God for these things we are also thanking them for giving their lives to feed us.
This needs to be a continuing celebration. Yes, I cherish this particular entity that I am, this Chris that I and others have built, protected, and nurtured over the years. Yes, I love the patterns of life I’ve helped create around me. But I feel I must also have the courage to praise the invisible entities that are this minute slowly breaking me down: the weight and friction of time itself, the microorganisms that soon need me to be their home, even the ancient ritual of my own cells beginning to turn against each other.
My courage may fail when I see where the final door is. But until then I intend to welcome this joy of being alive and the mystery of being made ready to become part of future generations of life.