Story and Death

Death is a stupidly hard thing.

I’ve so far avoided, even now in my almost 35th year, the death of anyone very close to me.  I’ve known lots of death, but none within that safe circle of people you cling to most, who are most of the only world that generally matters.  The deaths I’ve known (before this job) were of friends estranged either by time or drugs, or of family whose existence haunted me miserably more in life than they ever could in death.

I won’t claim to understand death, or even to really known it even close to the degree that many other people have.  I’ve no intention of writing some pensive or profound contemplation on the experience of death–enough has been written on that. 

But this is just to say that the first person who ever heard me play a song on the recorder died today. 

About a year and half ago, just back from Berlin, I purchased an alto recorder.  I worked graveyard at the same place I work now, and would spend some of the ridiculously long hours of those nights practicing, fumblingly.  The first time I finally had a song almost down, she was in the lobby, listening, and then she danced.

Like all people I work with, she’d had a horrible life compounded by the addictions she’d used to lessen her suffering.  The addictions then caused more suffering, and then finally death.

When I was younger, I was certain there was a very particular life after death.  I’m always embarrassed, however, by how pale everything seemed in my imaginings, how gilded but not golden, how too much unlike this life I envisioned it to be. 

Others have written on the beliefs in life-after-death; that’s not my intention.  My intention also isn’t to make any sense of death, because it really seems pretty senseless.  Every religion eventually faces this question and comes up with some answer that somewhat satisfies the adherent.  My own religious ideas could be probably be defined as  “atheist with wild suspicions” or “marxist pagan”…that is, it’s a jumble of mixed metaphor and competing arguments which happen to work damn well for me but probably wouldn’t work for many others, at least those unfamiliar with G.K. Chesterton’s mirthful paradoxes.

In fact, I don’t see the point of finding the truth of the matter, or any truth that doesn’t fit LeGuin’s brilliant confession of the fiction writer–“I’m lying to you–it’s the only way to tell you the truth.”   I rather like the creed of the liberation (Catholic) theologists and engaged buddhism, or of Starhawk’s unabashed anarcho-paganism; that is, religion (possibly re-)infected by leftism.  Their creeds, essentially–promises of spiritual enlightenment or heavenly matter little when you watch needless suffering on earth.  Priests who wield guns against wealthy land owners to help their flock grow their own food, monks who immolate themselves in the streets to oppose the slaughter of their fellows, the shaman who helps his people defend themselves against government soldiers. 

A good friend of mind, german, an atheist-leftist corrected me one time when I quoted marx’s statement concerning religion being the “opiate of the masses.”  He reminded me that, at the time Marx wrote, the opiates did not yet have the modern connotation of “stupifying/pacifying,” only of “pain relieving.”  That is, religion didn’t make the masses complacent, it lessened their pain.  The cause of that pain, of course, was the matter Marx attempted to get at, and used materialism (a mostly anti-religious framework) to try to correct it. 

I distrust both religion and political ideology when they deny each other.  Communism and Capitalism both (I’ll argue elsewhere how the economic is actually also political) do little for the soul, The Monotheisms and Buddhism do little for the poor (and all assume wretched suffering from poveryty to be the “natural” state of things). 

The woman who died, for whom I first played a song, was native.  I’m constantly fascinated by several things regarding native spiritual culture.  It’s mostly invisible, it’s mostly story, and it isn’t overly concerned by any of questions that codified religions obsess over.  I’ve been studying european paganism extensively (both the re-constructionism from the 17th century as well as the history we mostly know from what the Catholic church recorded, adopted, and resignedly propagated), and I’m fascinated by how much like native beliefs in America. 

Most particularly, both paganism and native religion makes shockingly few claims of universality.  The natives I ask will tell me the story of how her people were created, but not how all people were created.  When coyote plays tricks, he plays them not on other peoples, but on the people who know him. 

Paganism is a catch-all for thousands of belief systems (pagan originally meant “villager,” and I think it most helpful to think of paganism as “folk-belief”) and showed so little concern for what other people believed.  Like the Hebrews, pagan peoples typically just added the gods of other people groups, must in the same way that many of the natives I’ve met embrace aspects of christianity and Bahai’ism without sense of contradiction. 

Also, they like flute music.  There’s a tradition of carving your own flute from a block of wood, at least among the natives I work with.  Sometime’s they’ll chide me for not having done so yet (I don’t think I ever will), but they listen to my music all the same.

This is the song I played for her, an old icelandic story turned into a song.  There’s a recorder part in this creation of it, which provided much of my initial inspiration.  I showed her this video, too, and she told me how beautiful she thought it was, how beautiful the woman who died and was lost was, and how glad she was that she found her way.  Maybe she found her way, too.

It’s just a story, of course, but really–what else is there?

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