Ancient teachings

I know that some of you weary of my drug experiences, but I would ask for your compassion as I travel the dark road of pain upon which guides are few. For now, the marijuana is taking me more deeply within, and although it is a frightening journey, it is the only way that I know to proceed. Daily pain that lasts for years and leaves one increasingly disabled is not a shallow experience, and it requires all the depth and courage that I possess to live a rewarding life in its presence. Sometimes, every new day feels like a new failure, partly because I know that there are those who are doing ten times better despite being in twenty times more pain. I can’t even tell that I am growing. I used to know who I was; now I have lost my life, and I don’t know where to look for it.

The worst fears come when I go to bed. They are many, but Peggy’s death is the greatest with my own death being second. The fear would be there anyway, but since my nightmarish trip on marijuana, the drug has consistently taken me to the edge of panic. Yet, I continue to use it because I must look into the pit. Pain and terror are within, death is at my heels, and there is no place to run.

Yesterday, I came home from my daily bike ride to the library with books on aging by Ram Dass and Jimmy Carter. These men are religious (Carter is a Southern Baptist, and Dass defies labeling), but they write from the heart rather than the pulpit. This absence of dogma enables me, an atheist, to hear them, and to find common ground with them. It is a very good feeling. Last night, I started with Dass.

Ram Dass had a stroke in 1997 when he was just a little older than I, and he still needs 24 hour a day care. When a man like that talks about pain and fear and death, I listen. As I read him last night, peace settled over me. When I was ready for sleep, I both ate marijuana butter and smoked marijuana, and it was very good. This morning, I found the courage for hashish, which can be thought of as a concentrated form of marijuana. After I smoked it, I put on some harp music, and Peggy massaged my shoulders, as she does every morning. My mind raced, but the fear did not return.

Increasingly since the bad marijuana experience, I see death everywhere and in everyone, the young as much as the old. Like Buddhist monks who meditate upon impermanence as they sit beside decaying corpses, so has my life become a meditation upon death. “I surrender,” I said to death last night. “From now on, I will do all that is within my power to embrace you.” For guides, I, like Dass, must turn to other cultures because my own society is but a shallow wasteland.

I’ve been helping Peggy with some research she has undertaken about ancient Greek and Roman mythology. I had no idea how many gods they had, and I was even more surprised to find that so many of these gods speak to my experience, or at least to what I would like to be my experience. For example, Thanatos was a gentle and benevolent god who ruled over non-violent death, but his sisters, the Keres, were fanged, screeching, taloned women who wore bloody garments, and reveled in violence. Their power was such that even Zeus could not restrain them. Acheron, the lord of pain, was also a benevolent spirit. He had been transformed into one of five rivers of the underworld, and was considered an agent of healing rather than punishment. Old age was Geras (the Romans called him Senectus), a malevolent spirit who was portrayed as a shriveled old man. Homer described him as standing: “…someday at the side of every man, deadly, wearying, dreaded even by the gods.” I see my own life in such descriptions, and their timelessness comforts me.

I’ve watched ten or twenty people die, and I’ve helped prepare scores, at least, of others for burial. I was fourteen when I saw my first human death; seven when I watched my first dog die; and eight when I first killed a living creature (oh, how I regret shooting that little mockingbird). For some reason, I remember individual corpses better than I remember individual deaths. There were the newlyweds who tried to clean their gas oven with gasoline. As I stood over their black and swollen bodies, my heart was as heavy as if I had known them. They didn’t deserve to die for trying to clean their oven. Then there was the carpenter who had a heart attack. As I removed his striped overalls and untied the shoes that he himself had laced, my eyes were repeatedly drawn to his face. We would have been such good friends, I thought. He was gone, yet I could almost imagine that he was there beside me. I still imagine that he is beside me. So many dead bodies! People who I kept looking and smelling more or less alive so that their mourners wouldn’t be reminded of the putrefaction of the grave. The more I worked in funeral homes, the more I came to regard the American handling of death as a sickness.

I am horrified to think that I too will rot (I want to be burned, but that’s just an accelerated form of rotting). Yet, the worst thing that I can imagine would be the very thing that my mother wanted, which was to be buried in a concrete vault so that her remains would be prevented from nourishing other lives... When I picture myself as a corpse, I worry that I will have died with my eyes open, and that no one will close them. Being dirt doesn’t frighten me; it’s the getting there that’s the problem. Yet, I will rot, and so there is nothing to do but to embrace death. After all, I will be dead infinitely longer than I will have been alive.