Die Before You Die

Every year I’m surprised by how much spring looks like autumn.  I’ll walk to work, delighting in  the crab apples blooming pink or the fruit trees snowing petals, then do a double-take:  The elm shakes with brown seeds; the maple’s winged clusters are bright red. My first response is concern.  Is the tree okay?!  The new growth anticipates its own demise.  The beginning reveals the beauty of its end.

May is my month to ponder death.  My mother died five years ago on May 5th; grave-digger friends of my father’s cut lilacs blooms and pine sprigs to lay on her grave.  A friend gave us a leatherwood shrub in her memory, which greets us by our back door with intricate, dangling yellow blossoms.  The tangle of delight and sadness within me is poignant.  We spend spring Saturdays hacking back dead growth on the black berries and roses.

“Die before you die.”  Somehow the natural world flourishes in this spiritual maxim while we humans resist it, mightily.  Cut whole chapters from my book project?  Release thoughts in meditation?  Admit fault?  Reduce fossil fuel dependence?  Let our former ways of policing go?  Relinquish our pre-Covid mania for a slower, post-pandemic intentionality?  The many ways we’re invited to die while we’re alive—die in life-giving ways—are also the edges of our evolution.  My partner recently quipped (in a book group conversation about the Death tarot card), “White people won’t eliminate their own racism until they embrace death.”  This reality resident within our cells is powerful.

Recently, out of sheer desperation from five years of menopause-induced insomnia, I began working with a homeopathist whose remedy of highly diluted sea salt did the trick.  What the hell?!  My rational mind tells me this is impossible.  I demanded an explanation.  The homeopathist offered this:  “Sea salt is associated with grief.”  So I die to the answer.  I don’t know anything anymore.  I’m just grateful I can sleep.

Before studying the Death card, our group read about the Hanged Man, strung upside-down, feet in the heavens, head on the earth, crucified by life’s push and pull.  This is what death feels like to me—awful, cruel, an ending, but also, in a topsy-turvy irrational way, glorious.  Creative.  Bursting with possibility.  In divine service.  Now I try to keep my head close to the earth and trust my feet instead, since they seem to know the way.

The older I get, the more the spiritual life seems to be a dress rehearsal for death.  I suppose this sounds grim but—honestly—it doesn’t feel that way.  It feels more as I imagine trees feel every fall, releasing their leaves, or in the spring, wearing the colors of the end and then sending their million winged seeds flying.

-Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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