I taught university level courses in sociology and criminal justice for over 30 years but now I'm retired and at 72 was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, bone marrow cancer. This site is now a chronicle of my journey with myeloma.
This is a re-blogged post: I first published this post in January of 2018. It has become one of the most popular posts of the hundreds I’ve posted since I started in 2012-13, viewed almost 500 times in 2020 alone. Somehow I find it’s relevant to my last post. Just after my mother died on January 13th, 2018 I posted a comment and a few days later I posted this one. Originally it was just called It turns out we die from the feet up. If you read this post in 2018 you might want to skip reading it now. I think it’s worth reading again.
[Disclaimer: Don’t read this post if you are sensitive around the topic of death and dying up close.]
It turns out we die from the feet up. Well, that’s not strictly true in every circumstance, some people die from a bullet to the head, but it has an element of truth to it. As I noted in a previous post, my amazing mom died last week, on the 13th, very near midnight. She would have been 94 on April 4th. I wrote before that she died a good death, but that’s not what this blog post is about.
For three days or so before mom died, we held a vigil by her side. I have many siblings but two of my sisters were especially attentive towards our mom and visited her virtually every day at her care facility in Coquitlam. They were especially present during this vigil, but most of my other siblings showed up at one time or another as did some of their children and even grandchildren. We spent many hours in mom’s room and out in the hallway. Some of my sisters (and a brother-in-law or two) spent nights by my mother’s side too.
My mother was 93 when she died. Her story is really astounding and is one of sacrifice, caring, selflessness and dedication. She married my father on January 28th, 1946. He had 5 daughters from his first marriage. His wife died in childbirth as she was giving birth to her first son. Because my father had to work to support the family I assume he put out the call for help and my mother, 21 at the time, answered that call. She moved into dad’s house to look after the 5 children and to do all the housework too. Long story short, my mom soon after married my father and they proceeded to have 10 more children, I being the oldest. I’m 71. I was born in 1947, a year after my parents were married. My eldest sister from dad’s first marriage is about to turn 83.
Well, it turns out that although we are a loving and caring family we are also prone to irreverence. We love to laugh and tease each other but we also care about and respect each other, despite our differences. As my mother lay dying, we got to wondering just how the staff knew that she was in fact near death. We asked questions and the nurses and care aides responded in very matter of fact ways. How can we tell when someone is near death? I had heard that when the kidneys shut down that’s a sure sign that the end is near but in this case, mom had not had food or liquids for 2 or 3 days. It would be difficult to tell if and when her kidneys shut down. All this time, mom’s pulse appeared to be quite strong and although her breathing was irregular, it seemed to be consistent.
One of the nurses then told us that it’s possible to roughly assess how long it will be before someone takes their final breath by looking at their legs. When the toes and feet get cold and a line of blotchy skin appears, that means that it won’t be long. Now, nurses and care aides have a lot of experience with having people die on their watch. It would be foolish to ignore what they have to say.
After that, we proceeded to periodically lift the blankets off of mom’s feet to see how her toes and feet were doing. We didn’t notice any special coldness at first. Even on the day of the 13th, it didn’t look as if her feet had changed much in colour or temperature. We often checked on mom’s feet to see if they were getting colder or if the line of blotchy skin was going up her leg. The nurse said that when the line gets to the knee, that’s it. Death slowly creeps up our legs. Of course, there was no question of mom coming out of this crisis alive, so it was just a waiting game now.
I left the care facility around 4:30 PM on the 13th so I could have dinner with my daughter and her family in Vancouver. We half expected mom to still be alive in the morning when we returned to the care facility. I was getting exhausted too and needed a good night’s sleep. As it turned out, that day was the last one I would see my mother alive. In the early morning minutes of the 14th I got calls from one of my sisters and a brother-in-law telling me that mom had passed away, but my phone was on vibrate and I missed their calls. At breakfast, I learned that my mother had passed away a few hours earlier. Within two hours of her death, the people from the funeral home came around and took her body away. Shortly after that, some of my family members cleaned out her room of all of her personal belongings leaving no trace of her ever having been there.
I called my sister and we talked about what happened as mom got closer and closer to taking her last breath. It so happens that the nurse was correct. Mom’s legs had indeed gotten cold and blotchy as her heart became too weak to pump blood to her extremities. By the time she died, her legs were cold up to her knees and her legs were blotchy.
So, along with the grief and sadness that we all felt as we watched our mother/grandmother/great grandmother/mother-in-law die, we learned about how the process evolves.
Right up to her last moments our wonderful caring mother had something to teach us.
This is not one of my regular myeloma posts. I told part of the story I’ve written below in a February 2015 post. Ever since then I’ve wanted to expand on it so as to tease out some truths about the events surrounding the death of my father’s first wife and his subsequent marriage to my mother. History and biography are mostly fabrication, the invention of the past on the basis of one-sided, biased information, conjecture and, of course, ideology around actual facts like the time and date of certain deaths and other events. That doesn’t mean they’re not interesting and related somehow to the truth. Anyway, without prejudice, I offer the following:
Part 1: My father
Life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. People are complicated. Take my father, for instance. He was intelligent, generous, level headed and kind hearted, but at times he had fits of anger that were shocking because they seemed so out of character for him. He teased us children mercilessly, sometimes to distress. He could be, and was, physically violent on rare occasions. We never spoke of such things so I have no way of knowing what were the deep-seated impulses that led to his rare bouts of uncontrollable anger. He was never violent towards my mother that I know of, but he beat my older sisters one time that I recall very vividly.
From what I remember, my sisters were whining and complaining about doing the dishes or some such thing, probably yelling and screaming, fighting amongst themselves when my father, for some reason had had enough of it. He let fly with a pot that was handy, hitting them with it repeatedly until they all cowered on the floor, weeping and in shock. I might have been six or seven years old at the time and I remember cowering myself in the hallway, by the bathroom door wondering what could possibly be going on. To this day as I think about it, I can still feel the dread and fear that overwhelmed me at the time. I don’t recall anyone discussing it much after the fact, but it was traumatic and definitely left an impression. That I do recall.
He hit me too on the odd occasion for various reasons. I was no angel as a child and I may not always have conducted myself with the propriety and reasonableness that should, of course, inform the actions of all well-behaved five-year-old boys. I remember one time when at about six years of age, maybe seven, I smacked a kid (accidentally, of course) over the head with a garden hoe drawing a substantial amount of blood. No serious damage done, but you know how head wounds can bleed. I got ‘the strap’ for that one. When my father got home from work that day and my mother had conferred with him telling him all the sordid details of my great misdeed, his duty (I presume he saw it as that) would be to clinically administer several blows to my open hand with a rubber and leather strap he had gotten from his workplace and which he kept on a kitchen shelf for just such occasions. He did not draw blood, but in his mind I needed to be punished. I had to learn that there were consequences for what I had done. The logical course of action was for him to hit me, a perfectly acceptable and even expected thing to do at the time although I wasn’t enthralled with the idea.
My father was driven by a sense of duty to his church, his family, and French-Canadian tradition. He did not question his duty to have as many children as God expected of him and he took great joy in each of us. He was ill educated in the formal sense. He never learned to read nor write although he could do rudimentary arithmetic. He might have made it only to grade four in school but it was not because he was incapable of schoolwork; it was because he was needed to work on the farm in Alberta where he grew up and he needed to take care of one of his brothers. I don’t recall he ever mentioning it, but my older sisters told the story of why he had to look after one of his many brothers a little differently than was told to us much later at a family gathering in 1989 by one of our many uncles, I can’t recall which one. As my father had told the story to my sisters, he hurt his back so badly as a child that he could barely walk making it impossible for him to trek the three miles back and forth to school in Fort Kent every week day. Eventually we were to learn a different version of the events surrounding my father’s story. As my uncle told the story my father and his brothers were roughhousing one day in the farmyard and my father jumped on one of his brother’s back so hard that it virtually crippled him. My father’s punishment for that offence would be that henceforth he was to carry his brother around with him on his back wherever he went. He packed my uncle around for years. My uncle eventually fully recovered from his back injury and was able to walk on his own. Whatever the truth, my father did not attend school much as a child. He was no less intelligent because of it but his inability to read hampered his career during his working life. Ultimately, although we never discussed it, I forgave him his desire to save face by concocting a version of events that allowed him a more morally acceptable role in the accident that led to his functional illiteracy. Sometimes lies it seems are easier to live with than the potential opprobrium that might ensue with people knowing the truth.
My father seldom drank alcohol and never smoked but he did gamble every once in a while. He was what most people would have called “a good man” in the day. He worked hard and rose to junior management positions in lumber mills around the Lower Mainland in spite of his illiteracy. He was active in parish life and in the Knight’s of Columbus. He also fathered fifteen children.
Part 2 Childbirth and death
I don’t know if what I am about to write is entirely true or not, but it may very well be given the time. It was 1945, June 22nd. The war would be over soon. Normally this day would be a time for celebration, but this day would not be one of those. This day my father’s wife, Yvonne, would die in childbirth. She was an otherwise healthy twenty nine year old woman who had already given him five daughters. This day, something would go horribly wrong in the delivery room and Yvonne would bleed to death. Her newborn son would also die in the delivery room. I heard it said that Yvonne died because my father couldn’t afford a blood transfusion that would have saved her life but I was later to find out that this was a fabrication. One of my older sisters told me in a telephone conversation after my father had died that friends and family, even nurses at St. Mary’s hospital, donated blood but to no avail. I don’t know that to be true, but I expect it’s closer to the truth than the first account I heard of about no money for blood.
Just imagining what my father had to go through with his wife dying in childbirth and five young daughters to look after at home I expect that he was wrought with sorrow, anger, panic and despair no matter how his wife had died. First he had to break the news to his daughters that their mother would not be coming home. Then he had to find a way to look after his daughters while still going to work. He may have believed that the whole thing was God’s will. I really don’t know. I’m certain my father thought about that wretched day in 1945 every subsequent day of his life.
Part 3. An old photograph
I have an old photograph. I don’t know who took it and I’m not sure exactly when it was taken, but it must have been sometime in 1943 because in the picture my father is holding in his arms my half sister, Denise, who was born on January 10th, 1943. She is the only one of my siblings who is no longer alive. She died in 2004. In the photograph she appears to be a year old or so, which would mean the photo would have been taken sometime in mid 1943. In any case, looking at the photo, it doesn’t look like Yvonne was pregnant at the time with Roger (the name they intended to call their new baby if it had been a boy), but she may have been.
There is no obvious way to tell where the photo was taken, but the ground is dry and there’s no snow. I’m guessing it was taken somewhere in or close to New Westminster, British Columbia. Actually everyone in the photo is dressed for a nice, warm spring day, and they’re all standing in front of my father’s 1929 Ford Model T.
In the photo, my father’s first wife, Yvonne, is farthest on the left. She is standing just behind my half sister, Lucille, who at that time was two years old. She has her hands resting on Lucille’s shoulders. Next to her on her right is my father and he, as I said, is holding Denise. Standing next to him is my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier at the time. Next to her is Rémi Leguerrier who married my father’s older sister, Isabelle, and farthest on the right is my aunt, Cécile, mother’s older sister. Uncle Rémi, standing between them, has his arms around the shoulders of my mother and my aunt. He’s smiling too. The children are not smiling, neither is Yvonne although she may have been suffering from morning sickness and that might explain why.
Who could know that when this picture was taken my father’s first wife would be dead within the year and my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier would soon be his new wife. So, here we have my father flanked by his two wives. Never would he have guessed at that moment, smiling for the camera, holding his youngest daughter, that Yvonne would soon be gone and that he would be scrambling to find a way to look after his five daughters while still going to work. The picture tells nothing of the sorrow to come.
My father and Yvonne moved to British Columbia in 1936. As it turns out they made friends with the nuns who ran St. Mary’s hospital in New Westminster where all their children would be born. Apparently my mother had worked there for a time as did my father and it was the nun/nurses at the hospital who suggested, after Yvonne died, that my father ask my mother-to-be to come help look after the children while he went to work in a local sawmill. That wasn’t a stretch because the Albert family knew the Leguerrier clan when everyone was still living in the vicinity of Bonnyville, Alberta a few years before. So, my father knew my mother’s family before a number of them migrated to British Columbia during the Depression looking for work. My father was resourceful and capable of doing various kinds of lumber mill related work so he was able to find employment. My mother was equally resourceful and unafraid of hard work.
When Yvonne died, my father asked my mother-to-be if she would help and she agreed that she would. Months later, actually it wasn’t too many months later, my father had my grandfather and grandmother come to New Westminster to look after the children because my mother, who had been a surrogate mother to my father’s five daughters, had returned to Alberta unexpectedly it seemed. It turns out that she had returned to Alberta anticipating that my father would join her shortly so they could be married in Alberta at Fort Kent and both return to New Westminster as husband and wife.
Now my older sisters, really my half sisters, had a new mom. My mother was only twelve years older than my oldest half sister, Hélène. That caused minor friction to start with because when Yvonne died my father had told Hélène that she would now have to be mommy to the four younger ones. Now, she was being displaced as mother of the family but that animosity soon dissipated because my mother had lived with them for a few months already giving time for attachments to grow between them.
I cannot imagine that my father was not steeped in pain and sorrow during that whole time, but he had no other choice but to carry on. Sorrow must give way to children and their needs.
After their wedding in Alberta on January 29th, 1946, my parents wasted no time in getting on with the business of making babies. They were to have ten in all, but I was the first. I was born on January 4th, 1947, not even a year after my parents married. If my father’s first wife, Yvonne, had survived, I would not exist. Life’s like that. What I did get was my brother’s name. My half brother, had he survived, would have been known as Roger. That’s the name on the tombstone in the cemetery in New Westminster that marks the grave of he and his mother, Yvonne. So, I carry the name of my dead brother. It seems strange to say, but had he lived, my father’s life would probably not have been that different than how it actually turned out.
A couple of issues have been dogging me lately and are crying to be released into the blogosphere. One is the fact that I am no longer on chemo and what that means, particularly with regard to my future treatments and my relationship with ‘my’ medical team. The other is a nagging, recurring introspection around my death and dying. Let me start with my limbo between chemo and remission.
So, I’m not on chemo, at least not for now. Since October of last year I’ve been carefully supervised by a local GP oncologist and the Cancer Care Centre at the North Island Hospital in the Comox Valley. What happens now that I’m not on a regular regime of chemotherapy? I really don’t know, yet.
I called the Cancer Care Centre last week and they told me to contact my oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency (BCCA) in Victoria. Well, I contacted the BCCA to find out that the oncologist I thought I had is no longer employed at the BCCA and hasn’t been for two months or so. (Gee, thanks for letting me know.) It turns out I’ve been assigned a ‘new’ oncologist, one who has recently come here from Alberta. I have not met him but I’m scheduled to go to Victoria for an appointment with him in late October. His assistant told me to contact my local GP oncologist in the meantime. I get the sense that I’m getting a bit of a run around. I don’t think anyone is out to deliberately mess with me, but I’m feeling a little apprehensive about what happens now. It looks like I’ll have to be the squeaky wheel to get any answers. Let the squeaking begin.
I’ve noted this before, but one thing I am very grateful for is a great palliative care team. I can now report that my pain levels are going down steadily. That said, the weakness in my legs has not abated and that’s my main worry. That means that the neurological damage is not being affected by the meds I’m taking for pain. The pain is attenuating but the weakness is not. I’m still walking with two canes. I DO expect my strength to improve. Patience is the name of the game right now but I’m not that good at being patient.
Yes, I am a bit wistful, longing for a more settled, less precarious, state of life. Of course, life is never settled but that doesn’t mean I can’t wish for it. Life means movement and change but we are not alway happy with that state of affairs. We resist change by getting into routines and habits. We can delude ourselves into believing that life is stable when we do the same things day after day, week after week. The fact is, life is only finally settled when it reaches its destination.
In France in 2007, Carolyn and I boarded a fast train (TGV) from Paris to Montpellier in the south not far from the Spanish border. Arianne and Tim were living in Montpellier at the time doing post-graduate work at the university there. The train was incredibly fast (TGV is Très Grande Vitesse), moving at an average speed of over 300 kilometres per hour. Yet it was the smoothest train ride I had ever experienced (and I had experienced many in my youth). There was no clickety-clack, that most familiar sound I had heard on every train trip I had ever taken in Canada between New Westminster and Edmonton (where I attended boarding school). Lengths of track in France are welded together making for a single track running for hundreds of kilometres. No seams, no clickety-clack. Frankly, I found it a bit surreal but amazing at the same time. I had filmed part of the trip just as I had filmed other events on our six week visit to France that year, but I had a hard drive crash later and all my recordings from our 2007 trip were lost. What I have not lost, however, are my memories of that trip and our whole time in France that year. I still have vivid memories of catching the train in Paris, almost missing it, boarding without the requisite documents, settling down in first class (we decided to treat ourselves), and relishing this unique experience.
In bed a few nights ago after turning off the light by my bed my mind wandered again as it often has in the last few months to my death and dying. I had been looking for a metaphor I could use to make sense of my death, to give me some relief from the constant reminders of my demise. The reality is that I’m on borrowed time with the inevitable outcome of my death looming. My brain wants to keep coming back to that. It’s determined that I will be relentlessly reminded of my death and it will make sure that that reminder holds pride of place in my frontal cortex, not content with having it stay in the back of my mind where denial is so easy. We live by metaphors so I figured it should not be too difficult to come up with a good one. But I’m not sure a metaphor can win a contest with my brain when it comes to the ominous death watch I’m experiencing.
Then, our French TGV trip came to mind. The more I considered it, the more it made sense to me as a metaphor for life. That conviction was further reinforced as I read the article I link to below on our fear of death. The message in that article is simple: life is finite so make the best of it.
Using a somewhat questionable syllogism in this article Dresser asks us to consider whether or not we are afraid of the time before we were born, when we didn’t exist. If we aren’t afraid of that time, then why should we be afraid of death which is simply a time of non-existence much like our time pre-birth?
Yes, I suppose so, but it’s not that simple. Before being born, in that time of nothingness, there is no accumulation of life’s memories, of hugs, orgasms, loves, hates, good meals, accomplishments, and regrets. There is no possibility of loss or even the conception of loss. The anticipation of death, by contrast, involves facing the loss of everything, including experiences and all things material and immaterial.
Of course there is no perfect metaphor, but thinking of our TGV trip as a metaphor for life (actually any trip will do), it’s obvious that before boarding the train there was anticipation but no knowledge of the imminent experience. Once on board, there is full knowledge that eventually the trip will come to an end but the passing scenery, the food, the weird passengers on the other side of the aisle, all consume our attention. Eventually, of course, time is up, the train pulls into the station and we are compelled to disembark. We may not want to leave the train, having enjoyed the trip so much, but that’s not an option. We must leave the train and its memories behind. Yes, coming into the station and dying are comparable I suppose. Both are inevitable, both are necessary.
Yeah, maybe that works, but I have to think about it some more.
You might have seen tansies at one time or another. They aren’t super common but can often be found on vacant lots. In fact, the tansies in images 1 through 3 were photographed in an otherwise empty lot in our neighbourhood (by Carolyn). I sequenced the photos below to go from a wide to a tight view. The 4th image is one I took with the WiFi microscope at full magnification. Every one of the tansy flower heads is made up of over a hundred of the compacted cone/shafts you see in the 4th image. So, in image 1 you look over a minor sea of flowers. In image 4 you get close and personal.
What you don’t see in any of these images is what you see in the video that completes this gallery of images, namely the army of insects that populate tansy flower heads. You may be seeing only flowers when you look at images 1 through 3, but you’re also looking at bugs, lots of bugs, bugs invisible to the naked eye. The number of microscopic bugs out there is staggering. I won’t speculate on how many of them you had for dinner or are living in your eyebrows. That may be something you’d rather not be reminded of. Sorry.
I find it fascinating that we miss so much when we see the world with our limited eyesight. Truth is we see a narrow slice of the world, and that, unfortunately I think, also limits our appreciation of vast unseen, yet important to us, aspects of the world.
So, I’m sitting on the deck overlooking the fountain that Tilly has fallen in love with, and I can see the bees working the St-John’s Wort, flower after flower. I tried to capture of video of bees and flowers, but so far it just hasn’t worked. In any case, I swear I’m telling the truth (bees swarm those flowers!) so don’t press me for visual proof although I have posted a picture of the St-John’s Wort above the fountain. Spot the bee!
Hummingbirds are into the honeysuckle to the right of this picture, making regular trips here from the feeder in the front of the house. We have huge huckleberry bushes close by which we usually save for the robins and for my brother Léo when he often comes to visit with his family in the summer. But this year who knows where the robins are and Léo is safely distancing in Maple Ridge. Someone will probably write a book: Romance in the Time of Covid or maybe, Covid-19: Mess up our world will you?
The weather is getting warmer and the reclining chairs we have on the deck are very comfy. Sleep comes easily unless I’m on one of my dex days. Two and a half more chemo cycles. Must make it through. I’m trusting that I won’t be in a wheelchair after my first chemo course is over in October, but who knows, oncologists are not known for committing themselves to a particular prognostication. Oh well. Such is life.
Winding down. Sometimes I lay awake at night, especially on those nights when I’m on a dexamethasone high. Wakeful periods at night are a new things for me. I never had trouble sleeping, not even during really stressful periods in our lives. Now, at least three nights a week I have a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep.
At these times, all kinds of thoughts come into my head. They’re not all bad thoughts. I sometimes go over plans I have for a project I’m working on or I’ll muse on the news of the day. Sometimes wakeful periods can be quite productive. I promised myself years ago that when I got old I wouldn’t be one of those people who lived in the past reliving regretful events or sad moments in my life. Oh, that happens on occasion, but then I catch myself doing it and move on. Inevitably, these days, my mind wanders into the wall of truth that is my seventy-three years of life. Seventy-three years can seem like a long time, but it’s just a flash, really.
As Brian Cox, the famous British physicist put it, the universe itself lives and dies in a moment. Individual organisms come and go in an instant. The passage of time is an illusion that allows us to cope with the need to die. One human life lived over a period of eighty years is no more fleeting than the life of the universe itself.
Cox could have said “One human life lived over a period of eighty years is just as fleeting as the life of the universe itself,” because it is SO fleeting. Lately I’ve been musing about the lives of my parents and of their parents. My parents lived fairly long lives by most standards, both into their nineties, but they’re both gone and now their lives are a complete thing. It’s possible to trace their lives from beginning to end, to focus on the things they did, the children they had, the jobs they had and the way they related to us kids and their friends and relatives. There are photos and some film that my father took with his Super 8 movie camera. Everything they were and did is packaged up and we call that their lives. The finitude of a past life is obvious. It has a beginning and an end.
In our own lives we look back on past events, camping trips, weddings, stressful situations at work, strained relationships, special bonds we create with like minded people and with community. We look forward to and anticipate events, meetings, occasions, going to bed or working on a project. Time never stops for us until we fill that space we call life. At the time of our death, our life space is complete. A life is not complete until death, no matter when death comes.
Yet we are like mushrooms.
We are products of a cultural, social, and physical mycelium that has existence over time. We are much like mushrooms that sprout from a mycelium that has existed underground for some time and will exist long after the mushrooms that it produced slowly melt away back into the soil. Like mushrooms, humans flower for a short time, then decay returning to the soil of our ancestors. We are expressions of a process. Yet, no matter how elegant and truthful this metaphorical explanation may be for our lives, it does not satisfy.
No matter how hard I try to intellectualize the problem of time, life and death, I can’t help but get choked up a bit when I think that I’m on my last legs, that my death is immanent. It’s still a bit of a shock to me to think that I have incurable cancer. No way of getting out of this one. One day soon(ish) I will die. Am I prepared for that day? Not really. I want to think that when the time comes I will courageously and stoically meet my fate, but I may just beg for more morphine. Who know? However I spend my last moments of consciousness, nothing will change the outcome.
Yes, there’s currently a lot of research being done on a cure for multiple myeloma but like AIDS, it’s cure is elusive. There are treatments for myeloma that make it more like a chronic disease than an immediately fatal one, but still, the writing is on the wall, as the saying goes. Besides, myeloma or not, my death is inevitable, as is yours because that is the way it is. Life and death dance together. Learning the final dance may be the toughest thing I ever do.
A minute ago I mindlessly killed a mosquito. It’s an automatic reaction. A Jain would be very displeased with me. Janism is an ancient Indian religion. “Jains believe that animals, plants, humans (irrespective of different spiritual development) all have a living soul in them and all should be treated with equal respect and love.” (From the website)
Shit. Well, I guess I’m no Jain.
How mindlessly we treat most life, and how quickly life comes and goes.
Some of my artist friends have remarked that over the past month or so that they haven’t raised a brush to canvas, or engaged in any other art practice. It seems that gardening and cleaning have taken precedence over art production in the past while. For many, isolation, the cancellation of art shows, and slow sales have dampened creativity. That’s been my experience too. I’ve done a little drawing, but the bulk of my time recently has been taken up with cleaning my studio and workshop and doing maintenance projects around the property to the extent that my energy and pain levels allow. I have not written anything in quite some time. My last blog post was about our gardens here and not so much about my myeloma or Covid-19. Carolyn’s gardens have been so uplifting!
That said, Covid-19 certainly has me tongue-tied at least as far as talking about my cancer goes. The myeloma that I’m plagued with seems to have more or less evaporated, at least according to my lab results. It’s still incurable, but it’s likely that I will go into remission by the end of the summer and thankfully get a break from chemotherapy, I’m hoping for a long break. Of course, the oncologists promise nothing and I can understand that. So, it seems, myeloma is not the cause of my current health deficits, rather, the chemo drugs are largely responsible for the many side-effects that I experience every day. Old age, of course, has slowed me down. As Robert Sapolsky writes:
“we are now living well enough and long enough to slowly fall apart. The diseases that plague us now are ones of slow accumulation of damage—heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disorders.” (from “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping (Third Edition)” by Robert M. Sapolsky)
Yeah, that’s me. But, strangely enough, about a month ago I started feeling better. I suddenly got more energy. I could use my shop again and do things I have been unable to do for months. I seriously doubted that I would ever be able to handle tools again, especially chainsaws and the like, but I am. It’s wonderful! It makes life worth living again. I think my improvement is in part the fact that my body is adapting to the chemo drugs.
For some time I seriously wondered if I was not destined for a few more years of moderate to severe constant pain, low energy, dizziness, peripheral neuropathy, bowel issues, irritated eyes, headaches, and various other unpleasant bodily sensations. Death seemed preferable, frankly, although the thought of dying never did appeal to me at all. I may be able to intellectually accept the idea, but the reality of end times is another thing entirely.
Feeling better was such a relief. Then Covid-19 assaulted our lifestyles and sociality to an extreme, and we’re still trying to figure out where we go from here. Confusion reigns. What will the summer be like? Will the kids be going back to school in the Fall? Will we be able to get out canoeing at all this year? These are all open questions with no definite answers.
For a sociologist, Covid-19 and other potential future pandemics are an unintended consequence of globalization and are inherently interesting by that fact. The world has shrunk substantially over the past forty or fifty years in ways that are not readily obvious or apparent. Manufacturing businesses only incrementally moved their production operations off shore. The changes were, and still are almost imperceptible. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time when refrigerators, car parts, computers, tools, etcetera were no longer produced in North America, even though they are still largely designed here by corporations that still control their manufacture and assembly in places like Wuhan, China sometimes in plants they own and sometimes by Chinese contractors.
China has made it easy for them by establishing export-processing zones free of taxes, health and safety regulations and with low wages.
We know the container ships are out there. We know the airlines blanketed the earth with flights carrying both cargo and passengers at rapidly rising rates, and the internet has made just-in-time (Japanese-type) production possible along with the easy flow of finance capital. I can’t imagine there’s any turning back the clock on globalization, but the pandemic has exposed one very serious Achille’s heal of global corporate capitalism. When commodities and people move so easily and necessarily all over the globe in such immense volumes, it’s no big deal for viruses to hitch a ride on unknowing and unsuspecting travellers. The price of cheap commodities is exposure to viral threats that were previously contained in specific geographical areas. Smallpox was not the first pandemic but when it was introduced to North America hundreds of years ago now it killed tens of millions of indigenous people in wave after wave well into the Nineteenth Century. The Black Death in 14th Century Europe probably originated in China and arrived in Europe via new trade routes. It also killed tens of millions of people. We open up long distance trade at our peril. History has taught us that, but we haven’t learned anything from it. Seems we failed the exam.
So now what? Well, a friend (an anthropologist) and I discussed this last Monday evening and we concluded that although corporate America and Canada would love to control the process and the narrative, the more likely issue for business profits will be whether or not individuals like you and I gather up enough confidence to get out there and spend money on services and commodities. If we don’t, or are slow on the uptake thanks to successive waves of Covid-19, business will flounder and will have to rethink a globalist strategy that for decades has laid a golden egg for them. That won’t be easy for a number of reasons, one being that productive capacity has escaped national containment and it’s near impossible to produce a Ford motor car these days without assembling over four thousand parts made all over the world in factories from Mexico to China to Sri Lanka and India. It used to be that Ford produced cars in Dearborn, Michigan from scratch, bringing in all the raw materials necessary in the production of a car and making all the parts on site. Those days are long gone. Can they ever return? Maybe, but the price of vehicles and everything else is bound to rise if the nationalization of production were to be successful, possibly making most vehicles and most other commodities unaffordable to an increasingly impoverished workforce. Catch-22 is real. We’re living it right now.
Thankfully we still have our garden. Here are some pictures for you: The first three images are of the same scene taken a week to ten days apart. The greening has been very fast thanks to ideal growing conditions. The others are just a collection of pictures of flowers I chose at random. Enjoy!
I’m going to take a break from writing here for a while. I’m not sure for how long, but probably for as long as the pandemic has a chokehold on our attention. My life with myeloma seems to me pretty insignificant in the light of Covid-19. So sayonara. I may still pass along recommendations for your reading pleasure occasionally. The link below will take you to Charles Eisenstein’s website. The article highlighted here is called Coronation and is all about the Covid-19 pandemic and its ramifications. I could have written it myself but he beat me to it. If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll quickly see how closely many of his arguments are to mine. It’s a long piece, but you can handle it.
[I started writing this at 4:30 this morning. I don’t usually get up before 7:30, but my chemo meds keep me awake sometimes. I’m on a dexamethasone high. In other words I’m stoned. Let’s see how well this comes out. Well, I’m no longer stoned. It’s now 6 PM, and looking it over, I. think it’s fine, but I’ll let you be the final judge of that. It’s only a coincidence that this is the 42nd blog post in this series.]
Over the past few months, since I was diagnosed with cancer I have been on a search for the meaning of my life. I haven’t always recognized that in myself or acknowledged to myself that that’s what I was actually doing, but that is in fact what I have been doing pointedly and with urgency. There is probably nothing more capable of focussing the mind than facing a firing squad or a hearing a physician’s determination that one has an incurable cancer. The problem with the firing squad scenario is that there is no time for any reflection on the meaning of life before the bullets put an end to all reflection. At least with a cancer diagnosis, there is time for reflection. I have limited time left as a human expression in the biosphere, so I intend to use that time fully as a mortal in reflection on the meaning in my life, but more importantly as a generator of art, what Plato called poiesis.
In my life I was able to go to university and a get important post-graduate degrees in Sociology. Those years of study and reflection were exciting, stressful and tinged with contradiction at every turn and I got through them in spite of the system and not because of it, as I was fond of telling my students repeatedly over the years. I was able to learn many ‘things’ but the most important result of all of those years was my license to teach, to engage in an important aspect of my art.
Licenses are important. They are society’s way of legitimizing and concretizing in a title the fact that in the past one has acquired sufficient knowledge and capacity in a field of study or work to pass it on to others, operate equipment or on people, fix our plumbing and in a myriad of other situations. Over the years, my teaching was my art, although it was also my way of making a living and that contradiction was a constant source of irritation for me, and for people around me too, especially my long-suffering loved ones, Carolyn and the kids. During that time, though, I also engaged in the ‘plastic’ arts, in drawing, painting, and eventually in sculpture and printmaking. For most of my life I considered those latter pursuits the artistic part of my life. However, more recently, with my new sharpened mind engendered by my cancer diagnosis, I have been able to look back on my life and conclude that I was always an artist. I may have been born that way, but I think it was more an inadvertent result of my upbringing and the circumstances surrounding my birth and early years. I know now that my parents were also artists in their own ways. I know for a fact, because I worked with him at times, that my father struggled his whole working life with the contradictions he had to face every day having to earn a living doing things that were averse if not actually an insult to his inherent creativity. My father was a master craftsman, inventor, blacksmith and planerman. He was functionally illiterate too. My mother had a grade eight education and could read and write quite well. She had ten children, all still alive and kicking. Can we question her creativity? Definitely not her biological creativity, but she was creative in other ways too. She could sew up a storm and knit, cook like a pro and bake. Mygawd, could she bake! Later in life, after all the kids could look after themselves she took over my father’s workshop and started building all kinds of things out of wood. I still have a table by my bed that she built. It means a lot to me. Then, my father decided to sell the house and move into an apartment. That was the end of woodworking for my mother. She pretty much lost interest after that and it wasn’t long after she got Alzheimer’s dementia and that was that.
I feel I really need to explore in writing what my parents must have gone through during the time I was born and for some time after, and how that shaped who I became and am becoming still. I feel this exploration, my writing here, is part of my legacy, part of what I leave behind for you to learn from or simple contemplate as you would a painting on the wall in your living room, if you are fortunate enough to have a living room that is. My aim is that it engenders creativity in you, its beholders.✿
In any case, I was born on January 4th, 1947, which means I was conceived sometime in April of 1946. My parents were married on January 28th 1946. My father’s first wife, Yvonne Gaucher, died on June 22nd, 1945, seven months before my mother and father married. She died in childbirth after having five daughters. The baby, if it had survived, was to be called Roger, and I would not be. As the fates have it, he died and I was born 19 months later and they named me Roger. Can you imagine the stress my father was under? And my mother? My father had five daughters to look after. He made a call to my mother’s family in Alberta and my mother agreed to come help, look after the children and do all the domestic work. My mother and father had known each other in Alberta before he moved here with his family in 1937. Apparently my mother and dad’s first wife knew each other quite well. A short time later they were married. I can’t imagine what he was going through and we never talked about it.
Of course I was treated like a little prince. Not only was I the first boy in the family, but I had survived childbirth and so had my mother. I don’t really know what to make of my early days, not really. My mother soon had more children so my special status was soon eroded, but not much because my mother then proceeded to have four daughters in a row right after me leaving me the only boy with nine sisters. She had three more sons, interspersed with a couple more daughters.
So I have fourteen siblings in all, one of the older ones dying a few years ago of cancer. The rest of us are all still alive and kicking although a couple of my brothers-in-law have died last year. Many of my siblings are what I would call creative or artistic in work and in play. Five are afflicted with MS or another autoimmune disease. An altogether crazy bunch, but I love them all. What influence they’ve had in my life I can’t really say although they have been supportive when I needed it. And I really needed it when I was in my late teens and early twenties, depressed and suicidal. I could always count on my family. There was always a place for me at the table and a shoulder to cry on. Now I can say that I’m neither depressed, nor suicidal and I haven’t been for some time. Some people might argue that I have a right to be depressed, but I know now what depression is and it’s a waste of time. I don’t need it.
Alright, so what do I make of my life? Well, I’ve made it clear in a number of recent blog posts that I’m not chasing immortality. I’m a happy mortal kind of guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to dying. My myeloma is being managed successfully and I may live for another ten years, who knows. When it’s my turn to die, that will be just fine. We all come to the end of the line. Songs have been written about it.
Still, it took a cancer diagnosis and what I thought was imminent death from an incurable cancer to ask the question: What meaning did my life have? What meaning does it have? In the face of death, is there any meaning? These are questions Tolstoy was preoccupied with. As Ernest Becker reports in Escape From Evil: “When Tolstoy came to face death, what he really experienced was anxiety about the meaning of his life. As he lamented in his Confessions: ‘What will come of my whole life…Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?””
My answers to these questions came to me slowly at first over the last few weeks, then more pointedly only in the last few hours. I got answers by reading writers I knew would not fail in helping me answer these questions. The first was Ernest Becker and his book Escape from Evil (1974). Becker always knows the right words to say. He reminded me of the cultural significance of the fear of death and its significance for my personal encounter with death. Norbert Elias I read carefully. His book What is Sociology (1970) reacquainted me with my own discipline in a new, fresh way, a way of locating myself in time and space in a cultural project of criticism which clearly preceded me and will continue without me. But what of my career as a teacher? Recently I picked up a book that had been sitting in my library for thirty years untouched. It’s a book by James P. Carse called Finite and Infinite Games (see the note below). This is the book that triggered my recent reflections on my life as an artist. One section of his book deals specifically with art and culture and the relationships that we have with art as artists. I could have re-read Otto Rank’s Art and Artist but Carse does that for me. Rank’s book is always close to hand but it’s falling apart do to the handling it’s received over the years. Carse argues that the greatest struggle for any society is not with external enemies, but within itself. In society, we strive for titles, recognition for past achievements. But poietai (artists, inventors, storytellers, makers, etcetera according to Plato) are makers of possibilities. He writes (and this is a long quote):
The creativity of culture has no outcome, no conclusion. It does not result in art works, artifacts, products. Creativity is a continuity that engenders itself in others. [quoting Rank] ‘Artists do not create objects, but create by way of objects.’
Art is not art, therefore, except as it leads to an engendering creativity in its beholders. Whoever takes possession of the objects of art has not taken possession of the art.
Since art is never a possession, and always a possibility, nothing possessed can have the status of art. If art cannot become property, property is never art-as property. Property draws attention to titles, points backward toward a finished time. Art is dramatic, opening always forward, beginning something that cannot be finished.
Because it is not conclusive, but engendering, culture has no established catalogue of accepted activities. We are not artists by reason of having mastered certain skills or exercising specified techniques. Art has no scripted roles for its performers. It is precisely because it has none that it is art. Artistry can be found anywhere; indeed, it can only be found anywhere. One must be surprised by it. It cannot be looked for. We do not watch artists to see what they do, but to watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.
Artists cannot be trained. One does not become an artist by acquiring certain skills or techniques, though one can use any number of skills and techniques in artistic activity. The creative is found in anyone who is prepared for surprise. Such a person cannot go to school to be an artist, but can only go to school as an artist.
Therefore, poets do not “fit” into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their “places” seriously. They openly see its role as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, its crises arranged, its conflicts performed, and its metaphysics ideological.
So, if my life has been about engendering engendering creativity in the beholder, I think I’ve done that, at least to my satisfaction. Obviously, the best judgments of my impact on people must come from them. Ask my former students and people who contemplate my art embodied in the works I have created and you’ll get varying answers. All I can say is my objectives in my classes and in my paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures have always been to engender a surprise and a new commitment to creativity. Therein lies some of the meaning in my life. I’ve been fortunate to have more. My children, grown women now, are the pride of my life and both creative in boundless ways. I could take credit for that, but Carolyn is largely responsible, I’m afraid, as I was absent a lot as they were growing up. Carolyn, in her own right, is a talented artist. She uses her garden as her main palette, but her skills as a cook are unsurpassed. I can’t take credit for anything they’ve accomplished as individuals, but as a family I think we rock!
✿This concept comes from a book by James P. Carse entitled Finite and Infinite Games, (The Free Press, 1986). Carse is a great inspiration to me, a true artist. I will review his book and its significance for me in a separate blog post soon.
My dad was an unhappy man. He used to complain about the slightest thing being out of place – a pen, the honeypot, his special knife with the fattened grip. By the time his health really started failing, his arthritis so bad he could no longer get out of bed, his condition became all he complained about. ‘Dorian,’ he said, one morning over breakfast, the grapefruit cut up indeed with his special knife, ‘I hate myself.’ He was 86 years old and, I felt, nearing the end of life, so I took it upon myself to help him die as well as he could, a kind of Ars moriendi for the old man. ‘But Dad,’ I said, for the first time in our 32-year relationship. ‘I love you.’ When that didn’t help, I sent him some Montaigne.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92) lived a good, long life for a man in early modern France. By all accounts, it was a happy one, at least if his Essais (1570-92) – rangy discourses on varied subjects from thumbs to cannibals to the nature of ‘experience’ itself – are anything to go by. His writings, autobiographical in nature but highly argumentative, have survived him as somewhat radical (for the time) self-experiments. ‘Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book,’ he opens, with a letter of warning about the 1,000-plus pages that follow: ‘you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.’ Since I took my dad to be also involved in so vain and frivolous a subject – namely, himself (right down to the urinary tract diagrams he drew for me on paper napkins at the dinner table) – I figured they’d have a lot in common.
The passage I chose to hand him, from the essay ‘Of Solitude’, concerned Montaigne’s secret to happiness. It says, simply: these are the things we normally think will bring happiness; they’re wrong, here’s mine. ‘We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can,’ he writes; ‘but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them.’ In what’s become something of a trademark for his life philosophy he adds: ‘We must reserve a back shop all our own.’ A back shop – or in the original French, arriere-boutique. Of course, this is metaphor. Of course, my dad took it literally.
What is there left for us to learn from Montaigne on the subject of happiness? For one, that ‘back shop’ doesn’t mean the room behind your place of work. Increasingly confined to his bed, in the crummy 17th-floor apartment that doubled as his home office, my dad read these lines with an eyebrow raised. Granted, Montaigne himself penned them from a castle-tower eyrie, overlooking the vast estate of his château. He didn’t mean for us to take refuge there – this privileged perch was just where he did his writing (as I do mine now in the storage unit behind my house, a heavy wooden partition setting me off from the boxes and mess). No, the physical ‘back shop’ is just a writer’s den, and this misunderstanding has caused critics to huff about Montaigne’s solipsism, as if what he really said was: Go be alone and make great art. This does not lead to happiness, I assure you.
When my dad emailed back, misreading Montaigne in just this way, he nonetheless conceded that the passage I’d sent him was ‘thoughtful’. But not, he added ‘surprising’, as ‘Many writers nowadays speak of personal space, meditation, being alone at times, and so on.’ He went on to say how there was a difference between voluntary and involuntary solitude. ‘Many of us, as we age, become too much involved in that space.’ It’s not just the confinement but the loss of all able-bodied experience that they’re missing out on, and my dad (as ever) listed them: going to the market, dancing, seeing family and friends – precisely the things that Montaigne cautioned his readers not to count on for happiness.
In her bookHow to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010), Sarah Bakewell acknowledges the temptation to read Montaigne as an advocate for a type of isolation (chosen or not), but she qualifies this, saying: ‘He is not writing about a selfish, introverted withdrawal from family life, so much as about the need to protect yourself from the pain that would come if you lost that family.’ It was after the death of his closest friend and confidante, Étienne de La Boétie, and then later of his father, that Montaigne retired to his private library. In Donald Frame’s translation, this period is marked by Montaigne’s fall ‘into a melancholic depression, to combat which he begins to write the first of his Essays’. The contemporary US writer and essayist Phillip Lopate ventures that, for Montaigne, ‘the reader took the place of La Boétie’. But how, exactly, did Montaigne’s attempts (the literal translation of essai) assuage grief?
Certainly, an unnamed interlocutor haunts the text, the kind we usually chalk up to self-talk. Talking to people who won’t talk back (or who can’t because they’re no longer with us) is a form of conversational intimacy we might read as an extension of Montaigne’s general affability. In life, Montaigne was known about town as a raconteur with an open-door policy for guests. Even Bakewell, who sums up his back shop as a form of ‘Stoic detachment’, notes that in another lasting dictum Montaigne cried: ‘Be convivial: live with others.’ If Montaigne’s back shop is meant to mend a broken heart, then it is not by avoiding future pain, but by coming into a different relation with it.
Montaigne was well aware that the promise of getting away from it all was a fool’s errand since, wherever you go, you take yourself with you: ‘It is not enough to have gotten away from the crowd,’ he writes, since ‘we must get away from the gregarious instincts that are inside us.’ Instead, to quote Albius Tibullus, one of the Latin poets he grew up with, ‘be to thyself a throng’. This is where I hoped my dad might take note: shut in with no one but himself for company, there might still be a chance for great companionship. ‘We have a soul that can be turned upon itself,’ writes Montaigne, ‘it has the means to attack and the means to defend, the means to receive and the means to give.’ Sadly, my dad didn’t see his own soul this way and, after falling into a depression of his own, he took his own life.
I wonder now if Montaigne’s back shop was less the writer’s saving grace, lifting him from the depths of despair, but not the act of writing from within it? ‘Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves,’ he writes – and I take it he means that the quality of the inner dialogue will determine the quality of the life.
Montaigne’s mental chatter had a buoyancy to it, as he bounced from one subject to the next, going with the current. What I couldn’t convey to my dad, evidently, was this lightness of attention, distilled in that most famous of Montaignisms: ‘Que sais-je?’ (What do I know?) In his celebratory portrait of Montaigne, Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1837 comments that: ‘His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration; contented, self-respecting, and keeping the middle of the road.’ Not taking life quite so seriously – the pursuit of happiness notwithstanding – might then be Montaigne’s key to dying well. After all, there might be no surer inner peace in one’s final days than not needing it so badly.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
I probably should have included Saturday in my original post from yesterday, because it’s also a down day due to my chemotherapy treatments. I had another dex night last night. I got my usual acid reflux but it came much later than usual, around midnight, and lasted until around 5 AM. My tinnitus is about as bad as it gets right now. I slept, I really did, for a couple of hours between 10:30 and 12:30, then I got up to pee. I sort of slept again until 2 PM but that was it. I woke up startled by a very odd dream. So I listened to some music and read some Fernand Braudel about Medieval Europe while I tried to process this weird dream I had just had.
I woke up at 2 AM in a sweat. That’s not unusual either in the first three days after taking my meds, but this time, like I just said, I woke up from a very strange dream. I wouldn’t say it was a nightmare; it was much more matter of fact than that and it was very vivid.
So, in my dream I invented a portable guillotine. It was portable with a blade a metre long and 30 centimetres thick and sprung like a chop saw. It looked more like the cutting end of a pair of garden sheers than a traditional guillotine but it worked like a guillotine. I invented it to cut up yard waste like sword fern fronds and twigs, that sort of thing. I think it’s because yesterday Carolyn worked in the yard doing clean up and she cut up a lot of sword ferns to the ground. I guess I invented this ‘machine’ to chop up these fronds to make them more compostable rather than take them to the dump in the trailer. In any case, it worked well, but then someone stole it from in front of my workshop one night. I was pissed off but resigned to just building another one. Then the neighbours started reporting that dogs and cats in the area were turning up decapitated. I figured whoever had stolen my guillotine could easily be doing this. I was mortified. Then I wondered if we’d start finding people decapitated, maybe up the logging road. Now I felt really shitty. All of that mayhem was my fault for inventing such a dangerous tool. Then I woke up.
I’ve been wracking my brain to try to wring some significance out of this dream but I can’t seem to figure it out. I invented a dangerous tool for a good cause but then found it used for very destructive purposes by person or persons unknown. What can I make of that?
In any case, today will be strange. I’ll probably have to sleep much of the afternoon after I completely come down from my dex high and am left to deal with the fallout from the cyclophosphamide and bortezomib. For my headache I’ll take a couple of Tylenol. Strange, but my peripheral neuropathy is attenuated at the moment. I wonder how long that will last. The burping is driving me nuts!
By the way, I came up with my epitaph. It goes like this:
Here lies a man who did a lot of bad things in his life.
Here lies a man who did a lot of good things in his life.
At the end he hoped it all balanced out and he would
I’m quite attached to my body. Frankly, it is a long way from perfect, but I’ve grown fond of it over the years and have become increasingly tolerant of its idyosyncracies and foibles. It’s served me well in lots of ways. One special way it’s done so is by helping to create my two daughters thus ensuring genetic continuity for me and Carolyn. It can’t take a lot of credit for that, Carolyn having done most of the heavy lifting, but still, there were moments of joyful participation in the magical process by which my daughters were conceived and born.
Now, however, my body has decided that it’s getting time to move on. It seems to be quite relentless in this idea. My body has an intelligence of its own, as does all life on the planet. It’s not going to sit still. Life is about change. I’ve pretty much come to grips with dying. I understand it intellectually and am now in the throes of living it. Death is an ultimate form of disengagement from the world for me (I), but in another sense it’s just another form of re-engagement for all the atoms and molecules that make up the complexity of the structures in my body.
For me, as I’ve noted before, we are the stuff of stars. Translating that into language closer to home, it means that the material that makes up my body and all life on the planet has always existed and will always exist as long as the universe is around to sustain it. According to Brian Cox, the universe itself is finite so all bets are off as to what happens to matter and energy in billions of years when the universe itself is worn out and darkly still. For the moment, however, we can say that the universe is the ultimate driver of life on earth and anywhere else it might exist in the cosmos. “Life” here needs to be conceived in very broad terms and not just related to biological organisms. Galaxies can be said to have a life span, mountain ranges and continents too. Nothing is forever. Nothing.
There are two aspects of myself that are of interest to me for this discussion: what happens to my body after death and what happens to my consciousness. These are no longer arid philosophical considerations, they have never been closer to home in a real visceral sense for me, and are mobilizing all of my intelligence and emotional energy.
Without sounding too arrogant, I think I have both of those pretty much figured out after fifty years of study, thought and introspection. As far as my body goes, it’s quite simple, really. I’m a big proponent of simplicity in the search for solutions to life’s problems. That means that I adhere to the philosophical principle called Occam’s razor, or the idea (without being too simplistic) that the simplest solution to a problem is probably the best.
“Antoine Lavoisier described the law of conservation of mass (or the principle of mass/matter conservation) as a fundamental principle of physics in 1789.” That formulation was followed later by the law of the conservation of energy and later still, after Einstein, by the law of the equivalence of mass and energy or the idea that mass can be transformed into energy and vice-versa, but neither can be lost in the process. Bringing this idea down to my level, it is my sense that what makes up my body has always existed and always will, giving me a real sense of connection with all life on the planet and a very real sense of continuity with all life, past and present, including with my ancestors. Put simply, when I die, my body and all of its constituent elements return to the pool of raw materials available for the construction of new forms of life, as I’ve noted before. I can’t emphasize enough the notion of continuity here. In the face of my immanent annihilation, I take solace in the notion of my intimate connection with life in the cosmos and as part of an ongoing process of life. That still leaves me with a problem. What about my consciousness?
I think that my consciousness, when my heart stops beating, will no longer exist in any way, shape or form. Why should it? My consciousness is organically tied to my body and cannot exist without that living connection. Break that connection and the light goes out. So, in anticipation of my death, I may mourn the loss of consciousness above all. That doesn’t mean that I think it has any means or justification for existence beyond the demise of my body. Remember Occam’s Razor. I see no need at all for any supernatural intervention in all of this, something I think is unnecessary given the perfectly plausible and simple scientific explanations available to explain life and its continuity. It seems I’m probably in a minority on this one.
Now, if I were to write a play based on what I’m going through at the moment, I would surely incorporate as a basic plot line the plethora of imaginative constructions (ideologies) that argue that consciousness does not die with the body, but has a life of its own and goes on ‘living’ after the heart stops and all brain activity ceases. I’d have to put my own ideas of continuity up against the age old ideas of the perpetuation of consciousness beyond bodily death. I can envision a Waiting for Godotor My Dinner with Andretype of play. Frankly, I’m perfectly content with the idea that my consciousness will not outlive my body. It’s the simplest and most elegant solution in my mind although it has some serious social implications that I need to explore next. However, in the play I envision, proponents of the immortality of consciousness and/or the soul would need to have their say.
It’s not a huge stretch to go from the perpetuation of consciousness after death to the idea of the soul and its existence independent yet connected to the body and its survival post-death. The ethnographic literature is full of descriptions from ancient cultures about the role of the soul in human life and its immortality. Sociology addresses modern versions of this idea. It seems that for millennia, humans have been loathe to entertain the possibility of total and absolute death and have been, across the board, wedded to the idea of the immortality of the soul even more than they have espoused the existence of God or any other supernatural force. Thousands of religions and their associated churches or societies have come up with often contradictory ideas related to the makeup and activities of the soul and its place in the universe. These contradictions have often been the source of violent confrontations and pogroms, because if my idea of how to get to heaven is the right one, yours has to be wrong and I’ll kill you to show how much more powerful my conception is to yours. These are ideas I need to explore in part 2 of this post.
Stay tuned for part 2 which I’ll release on Sunday, March 8th.