Dying Is Not A Project

CAF9BB7A-31C6-4C6C-AFB3-FACAEA7A1B20A couple of Owl Journal entries ago, I quoted from a book by Stephen Levine titled A Year To Live.

What I did not include, was the book’s subtitle: How To Live This Year As If It Were Your Last. 

Now, this book was suggested to me by someone very smart, someone with impeccable intentions. The premise of the book — simply that we can choose to live everyday as if it was our last — whatever its merits may be, is hardly an original proposition. For instance, 144 years before Levine, Henry David Thoreau famously wrote of his reason for moving into a tiny cabin in the woods near Walden Pond:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, [and] put to rout all that was not life.”

Noble ideas, for sure.

However, consider if you would, Thoreau was…

28-YEARS OLD!!!… when he moved into his tiny cabin near the pond in search, apparently, of lots of marrow to start sucking, and…

While it may be true that he had contracted tuberculosis ten years prior while at Harvard, he was far from infirmed. He actually built the cabin he moved into, he was asymptomatic for the two years, two months, and two days he resided at Walden Pond, he certainly did not have an incurable degenerative neuromuscular disease slowly crippling him, and instead of a prognosis of 2-5 years life expectancy from time of diagnosis, as is the case with ALS, he was relatively healthy for 15 years after he moved out of the cabin and back to relative civilization, where he eventually died at the age of 44.

So yeah, suck marrow, by all means.

Just tell me, figuratively speaking, what if you can’t physically suck.?

As for Stephen Levine’s A Year To Live: How To Live This Year As If It Were Your Last, it’s a beautiful book, truly, and I think had I discovered and read it years ago it would have been fun and useful to actually follow the lesson plan for a year-long exercise in living as if it were the last year.


“Cease becoming, and begin to be!”

Summer 1988, I was preparing to leave the nest, to join my friends who, a year earlier, had moved from our New Jersey suburb to Los Angeles, California. I had originally wanted a Kerouac-Cassady-style cross-country road trip experience, but for reasons I can’t recall it just wasn’t in the cards. And, while Amtrak was by no means a freight train I could hop a ride on, I would get three days and three nights of rolling down the tracks, gazing out the windows at America in all its grotesqueness and glory. I had my dog-eared Desolation Angels and my journal in my pack, and there was a bar car with a plexiglass ceiling, where I envisioned myself spending much of the trip.

Over the first day and night on the train, I met a cast of colorful characters, my fellow beer lovers in the bar car, and I very quickly became enamored of this mode of travel: someone else is doing the driving, you’re free to walk around all over the train, there are many comfortable places to sit, in your reclinable coach seat, the dining car, the bar car, there’s food and drink for sale, and there’s a constantly changing view available looking out of the windows.

Day 2, within a few hours of leaving Kansas City, your brain starts to struggle to accept that any place on this round planet of ours could be so flat for so many miles. Hours and hours pass and the tallest thing to be seen is a grain silo, next tallest a barn, then a farmhouse, a shed, and it just kept repeating like that: wheat-silo-wheat-barn-wheat-farmhouse-wheat-shed, wheat-silo-wheat-barn-wheat-farmhouse-shed, every once in a while a tiny train station, but then back to wheat-silo-wheat-barn-wheat-farmhouse-wheat-shed.

This goes on for 600 miles before, if you’re paying attention, you see the Great Plains run right smack into the city of Denver, and then end abruptly at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

The portion of the journey through Colorado was spectacular. The train adds two additional locomotives in Denver in order to ascend into the mountains, and then zigs and zags a seemingly inscrutable route across the Great Divide.

By the time we were just west of Denver, I’d been talking for hours with one of the most unusual people I’d ever spent any significant amount of time with. He wasn’t a hobo exactly, for hobos don’t ride Amtrak. Rather, he was a man whose mileage was written all over him, road/trail-worn clothes, not dirty, but ragged, threadbare in places, hand-sewn patches in others, boots that could tell a million stories (he told me just one, how he got them resoled right before he boarded the train in Chicago, by a Chinese shoe repairman who worked out of a walk-in closet behind a restaurant), and an old-school aluminum frame pack stuffed to overflowing.

He spoke in a kind of rambling poetic manner that I was barely able to understand, his speech slurred by some kind of liquor he kept nipping at from a bottle in a brown paper bag. But, what he didn’t convey in a straight forward, literal way, he transmitted nonverbally, with a gentle smile that seemed illuminated from his heart, and a genuine interest in connecting.

He said he was first drawn to me when he saw me with my book and notebook, and he wanted to tell me that he’d met Neal Cassady in San Francisco before Cassady transformed from a beatnik into a Merry Prankster. I shared about my love of the Beat writers and of the Grateful Dead, who had spent some time on the bus with Cowboy Neal. My new friend was deeply kind and believed himself to be wise, very much like some old hippies I’d met at Grateful Dead shows, but he had nothing at all to say about music.

Rather suddenly, there was an announcement that we’d be making a very quick stop in Glenwood Springs, CO, at which point I was surprised to find my conversation partner snap into action, tucking some things into his pack, putting on a jacket and a red hunting hat, just like Holden Caufield’s.

“Are you getting off here?”

“Yeah, I’m outta booze. I’ll be right back.”

“But look around! It’s a brief stop and we’re in the middle of nowhere!”

“Perfect! Listen my friend, before I forget, let me leave you with some advice. No questions, ok? Just take this with you, write it down in your notebook, and let it soak in and take root, ok? Ok. Here goes: Cease becoming, and begin to be.”

“Cease becoming, and begin to be?” I repeated as I scribbled it in my journal.

“Exactly! I’ll see ya later!”

“There’s nothing here! No stores!”

“Oh, I’ll find something!”

I never saw him again, but he and that advice of his have never left me, and I like to think that I’ve been mostly successful at living those words.


You’re Dying. Now, Get To Work!

There’s already one monster project thrust upon the dying: The whole putting your affairs in order business, and if you really think about it, it’s exceedingly cruel. One moment, you’re told you have 2-5 years to live. The next, you’re told that in order to protect your family’s finances, ensure that you can access the considerable healthcare you’ll need, and communicate your wishes regarding your legacy and how your passing is to be observed, your doctors, an estate lawyer, your employer, several insurance companies, the federal government, a funeral director…

They all require something of you.

Getting these somethings to them, then, involves hours and hours of:

  • Deeply mind-numbing, fine-print reading to learn what needs to be done
  • Doing what needs to be done, aka:
    • Completing mountains of paperwork. Yes, in 2019-2020, paper!
    • Navigating black hole telephone menus
      • Forced to listen to crappy on-hold Muzak
    • Follow-up calls to complain about delays and errors

It really is astounding. I was often overwhelmed and stressed out by the amount of work, the dire consequences of missing some important detail, or the possibility of some clerk somewhere missing some important detail, all while trying to come to grips with ALS.


A Little More Time To Just Be

Therefore…please, please, please don’t ask me to make a project of my dying, replete with goals and deliverables and deadlines, books and YouTube videos, and journaling exercises. I mean, I fully support the self-improvement/growth mindset, but I really believe my work is done in that department. I’ve grown in various areas of my life, perhaps not so much in others, but mostly I’ve always been clear about who I am, and I rather like myself.

As I mentioned in my memoir, I, Too, Heard The Owl, I’m making my way around through the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acce…Accep…Accepta…

Yeah, I’m struggling a bit with that last one, Acceptance, very specifically as it relates to the manner in which I’m dying rather than the fact that I’m dying. Otherwise, my soul, I’m confident in saying, is in pretty good shape. I’ve had a beautiful life. I have very few regrets. I’m ready for the next adventure, if there is one, and if not, well, bring on that very long, quiet rest!

In fact, I was thinking, this post-mortem repose, if there’s any mercy or justice in the afterlife, should last at least as long as all of those times combined when the shriek of the alarm clock bullied me out of bed.

Yes, that would be lovely. I believe that this is what some people might call grace. Grace is nice.

So, if you don’t mind, and, sorry, but even if you do, I’m counting on a little more grace before I’m all done being.

Rather than spending the time I have left preparing to die, rather than trying to change or fix or improve something about myself, rather than gorging on wisdom and philosophy and religion, here’s my current list of things I’d like to spend my time on.

  • Eat whatever the fuck I want! Woohoo!!!
  • Cancel my plans to read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, in favor of reading Michael Chabon’s most recent novel Moonglow.
  • Take that deep, immersive dive into Miles Davis’ 1970s music that I never seem to get around to.
  • Tell my wife and son that I love them every single day.
  • Post a new scrap of writing here at The Owl Journal at least once a week.
  • Finish reading Carter Beats The Devil by Glen David Gold.
  • Watch as much concert video on YouTube as I damn well please!
  • Find as many ways as possible to get out into nature in order to commune with my non-human brothers and sisters.

2 thoughts on “Dying Is Not A Project

  1. Lori Jo Erlichman April 2, 2020 — 9:35 pm

    I’m listening ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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