Our Unknowable Real Mortality

“ 'Remember, you too are mortal' - hit me at the top of my form and just as things were beginning to plateau.”
Christopher Hitchens

As I gather and reflect on things that connect us, in which we might find imagined connections,1 I cannot escape death.

As a topic, I mean. Dying – the exact moment of it – is something none of us has experienced. But all of us will.

Each of us walks through life with the unshoulderable burden of not knowing death. Our unknowable real mortality. There’s nothing to know. “Death means you stop being.” thought visionary Jorge Luis Borges. “You cease from thinking.”2 Knowledge is impossible in the unbeing.

That will not, however, stop us fretting, fussing, and dripping anxiety in our wake as we drag our eventual corpses through life.3

our unknowable real mortality
“Vanitas IV, Dreams, After A.C.,” 2015 by Paulette Tavormina. A few centuries ago humans felt death awareness was a moral imperative. Not only would it remind viewers of life’s evanescence, it would invoke perspective necessary for virtue and contemplation. The contemporary photography of Paulette Tavormina spins a modern perspective of the Old Masters’ Memento Mori paintings. Courtesy of the Robert Mann Gallery.

Perhaps that is why we take a logistical approach to death. As if packing for a trip. Must sort out the health care and wills. To do: caskets, burials, musical selections. Making peace with all and sundry.

Humans find mental clarity and comfort in planning and executing. Especially related to the thing delivering our death. Susan Sontag kept fierce and constant vigilance over her own deteriorating health until the day she died.4

The reality is the living have no idea how to “prepare” for death because we’ve never journeyed to death before. Never seen it. Don’t know anyone who has. Nevertheless, we push the distraction until death awareness comes upon us. Sizzles and smokes like a spent wick.

The moments we become aware of our own death – I mean emotionally, cognitively, intellectually distraught with numbing truth that there will be a point when we do not exist – are what psychologist Irvin Yalom calls “awakening experiences.” Like Ebenezer Scrooge seeing his own tombstone in A Christmas Carol.5

“Our existence,” writes Yalom, “Is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and inevitably, diminish and die.” Our preternatural awareness of this truth arrives through dreams, deep discussion and contemplation, literature, and grief.

In 2010 Christopher Hitchens, the world’s most frustratingly-wise contrarian, had an awakening experience when his undiagnosed cancer triggered a terrifying physical malfunctioning.

I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs… It took strenuous effort for me to cross the room of my New York hotel and summon the emergency services.

Hitchens’ word choice “came to consciousness” is apt. For this deepening awakeness to one’s own death is an expansion of consciousness.

What began as an overpowering physical assault was soon found to be esophagal cancer which Hitchens addressed with his classic vigor, intellectualism and un-sentimentality, choosing to undergo chemotherapy and write about it.6

“Remember, you too are mortal” – Hit me at the top of my form and just as things were beginning to plateau. My two assets my pen and my voice – and had to be the esophagus. All along, while burning the candle at both ends. I’d been “straying into the arena of the unwell” and now “a vulgar little tumor” was evident. This alien can’t wait. The alien was burrowing into me even as I wrote the jaunty words about my own prematurely announced death.

British writer and publisher, Robert McCrum, suffered a stroke in his early forties, and then, two decades later, a stumble on the pavement made him revisit his unknowable real mortality.

Face to face with mortality, McCrum, like Hitchens, turns to contemplation on the miasma of death that surrounds him as he steps forward every day. His language is similar to Yalom’s. Maybe there are only so many ways we can talk about death.

This book reminds anyone who has lived as if they were immortal that there are no privileges or exemptions – no backstage passes. The remorseless passage of time and the unwelcome intrusion of physical frailty must finally confront everyone with the same inevitable reckoning.

our unknowable real mortality
“Vanitas VI, Reliquary, After D.B.,” 2015 by Paulette Tavormina. Using items of her own and others found in markets and shops, Tavormina’s work, especially her Vanitas series, suggest a painstaking amount of work. Envisioning the space, cultivating a sense of life and death simultaneously, and then carefully positioning the objects. Courtesy of the Robert Mann Gallery.

We cannot avoid the proximity of death. Which doesn’t mean we think of it all the time. Even when it’s close, we jump in and out of our awareness of it.

In Katie Roiphe’s wonderful, wonderful book The Violet Hour detailing the last moment of great writers, there is a passage about John Updike that struck me.

When his children came to visit him at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was, as his youngest son, Michael, put it, “a good host.” The common human impulse to entertain, even in a hospital room, sees to have been especially strong in Updike, though he also saw through the impulse, resented it, examined it. At the same time, he was writing a poem about lying in the hospital, making small talk with visiting children and grandchildren.

Like Updike who both played games and wrote poetry, John Keats was also in and out of a full death awareness before his death. In his last known letter before dying of tuberculosis, Keats admitted: “I have a habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”

our unknowable real mortality
“Vanitas I, Treasures, After E.C.,” 2015 by Paulette Tavormina. Not only do Tavormina’s pieces remind us of death, but many items in the work are in the act of dying. Petals drop, leaves slump, candles extinquish. There is movement, change, even in stillness.Courtesy of the Robert Mann Gallery.

The death anxiety comes to everyone awake with expanded consciousness. It is the cost of being thus awake.

But it need not be negative. It need not be paralytic. Being aware of death doesn’t change our likelihood of death. (Like denying pain does not make it disappear).

McCrum’s purpose in writing Everything Third Thought was to move through anxiety and arrive at understanding. Christopher Hitchen’s intention in chronicling the short remainder of his life (he died in 2011) was to present unsentimental truth as he had always done. Susan Sontag so fretted about her own illness because she had a ferocity and life that needed letting out.

Irvin Yalom’s “awakening experience” is not just a moment of awareness, it is a moment of change. He writes:

Although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.

We can galvanize something from death. We must. There is no other way to live.

Do Mirrors Tell Us Who We Are?

“Mirrors show everything but themselves.”
Rebecca Solnit

As we fling ourselves headfirst into the universe, asking unspoken questions like “Do I exist?” “What am I?” “Who am I?” very few things respond as fast and as accurately as a mirror. Sight is our primary sense to take in and process information, and in the mirror we see ourselves. There we are. That we are.

We see ourselves in mirrors, but what do we see of ourselves?

My daughter flirted with the threshold of self-awareness around six months ago when she first saw herself in the mirror. She went nuts. Flapped like a flamingo. She then saw herself flapping like a flamingo and began barking and flapping like a puppy-flamingo hybrid.

Did my daughter see herself in the mirror? Did she think “I am here”? Or did she merely see something entertaining and react? (It was thoroughly entertaining.)

Besides humans (older than six months, we assume), there is a list of animals that can recognize themselves in mirrors. This list is expanding so rapidly that scientists are now wondering if the test they use—a dot on the face that animals try to remove—is inept. Apparently, a fish passed it recently. The dolphins migrated in protest.

It’s complicated.1 The mirror test—flawed or not—speaks to self-awareness. Are you a hand, a foot, a reflection in a mirror? Or are you you?

Between the body and the mind, there is a spirit of something—existence.

My daughter didn’t just flap. She flapped, saw herself flapping, and knew it was she who was flapping. That is incipient self-awareness. Pretty soon, like most humans, she’ll look to a mirror to deliver honest truths about her appearance, her self.

We learn to trust mirrors early on. Rely on them fully.

francis bacon in your blood
“Study for a Portrait” by Francis Bacon, 1952, Bacon’s distortion of an unnamed man in suit is also entitled “Businessman.” Learn more.

Consider the Robert Lowell poem, “Waking in the Blue.” Lowell, leader of the confessional poets of the mid-20th century, struggled with manic depression his entire life and spent many interludes in psychiatric hospitals. In that space, specifically McLean Hospital outside Boston, he saw his physical self bent and twisted in the “metal shaving mirrors.”2

From “Waking in the Blue”:

The night attendant, a B. U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My heart grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the ‘mentally ill.’)

[…]

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases.

Mirrors of metal so they couldn’t become shards. Metal that returned “pinched” reflections and “shaky futures.” Twisted and blotched like a Francis Bacon portrait. Lowell saw his fractured self in the mirror. Is that who he was?

mirrors tell us who we are
Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for a Self-Portrait” 1979-80. Learn more.

Bacon was a modern British artist whose work electrified its viewers, delivering shock and feeling with features that looked human, mechanical, and dreamlike simultaneously. Bacon acknowledged his art was self-representational:3

Autobiographical? Well yes, inevitably, it’s about my life, at some level. It’s filled with my thoughts about things. And yet when I’m in the middle of it, I forget about everything, about myself and about friends and things that have happened. That might sound as if I’m talking about inspiration, but it’s not that. … I just get the bits of paint down and hope they suggest a way I can make something that looks as if it’s come directly off the nervous system.

In the mad dash to “get the bits of paint down,” Bacon created work that reflected sight but not visual. Something deeper, emotions drawn directly from his nervous system and passed intravenously (intranervously?) to our own subcutaneous essence. In that way, Bacon was mirroring himself—and perhaps mirroring everyone? Is that a realistic portrayal of humanity?

If I could draw my emotions, my soul, my psyche, at times it might indeed look a bit like a Bacon portrait. Mechanical, human, and dreamlike. Or at least a reflection in a metal shaving mirror.

But that’s not how I appear. What about appearance?

Terry Gross has interviewed thousands of people in her 40 years hosting NPR’s Fresh Air. Gross has said that the most common question from the audience was what she looked like.4 Why? Does what she looks like tell us more about her than what she says on the air and in interviews? Our appearance is a reflection without deeper consideration. A physical without a self.

This distinction is the crack into which slips the concept of a double. This double, this us that appears exactly like us, which is not us.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries. It is likely that sentences such as A friend is another self by Pythagoras or the Platonic Know thyself were inspired by it. In Germany this Double is called a Doppelgänger, which means ‘double walker.’ In Scotland there is the fetch, which comes to fetch a man to bring him to his death; there is also the Scottish word wraith for an apparition thought to be seen by a person in his exact image just before death. To meet oneself is, therefore, ominous.

The above is Jorge Luis Borges’ definition of “The Double” in his wildly delightful The Book of Imaginary Beings, a collection of creatures from various cultures and histories. Has anyone written more about mirrors—their power and limitations—than Borges? This Argentine writer, poet, and essayist and man who stepped back from life and marvelled that we are alive. A man who must have seen himself from a distance, like a mirror would.

Except, Borges did not see himself in a mirror. Not only did he suffer from extreme shortsightedness—and at the end of his life, blindness—he also had a lifelong dislike (he even uses the word “fear”) of mirrors and strictly avoided them. When asked about his usage of mirrors as an image, he answered:5

Well, that, that also goes with the earliest fears and wonders of my childhood, being afraid of mirrors, being afraid of mahogany, being afraid of being repeated. […] the feeling came from my childhood.

The double is us but isn’t us. It is us without the self.

francis bacon in your blood
“Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake)” by Francis Bacon, 1955. Learn more.

I am fascinated by the double except, bizarrely, I imagine myself as the reflection not the original. A Midwestern-bred need to please makes me “mirror” others rather than project myself.

American essayist Rebecca Solnit wrote she was made to feel she was the “mirror” of her mother. Solnit grieves for her lost self.6

Who was I all those years before? I was not. Mirrors show everything but themselves. […]She thought of me as a mirror but didn’t like what she saw and blame the mirror. When I was thirty, in one of the furious letters I sometimes composed and rarely sent, I wrote, “You want me to be some kind of a mirror that will reflect back the self-image you want to see – perfect mother, totally loved, always right – but I am not a mirror, and the shortcomings you see are not my fault.

A mirror is where we meet and see our embodied self. A mirror tells us that we are. Frozen in time. Mirrors don’t capture the past or the future, but they do reflect the present. They are immediate, instant, and reflective of right now. As long as we stay in the now, there will be no then. No death, no pre-existence. Do we ever feel more alive than in those moments when we’re certain we’re not dead?

As I dance around these issues, throw a few into the universe, gently strike the concept of a mirror and wait for a chime, one thing that is certain—despite the intelligent attempts of the magpie—is that self-awareness, mirror or not, is wondrously unique to human beings.7

Mirrors might tell us that we are, but as Borges knew well, they don’t tell us who we are. Only deep contemplation and examination of the miracle of life, of our existence, and, ultimately, our nonexistence can do that.

Self-knowledge is beyond the mirror.

The Comfort and Wonder of Being Read To

“nothing is safer
than the sound of you
reading out loud to me.”
Rupi Kaur

The vast voice that rings down from above, enshawling our arms in a cone of auricular safety. The physicality of sound intended to contain and expand simultaneously.

Is there anything better?

My father had a special voice when he read to us. Softer, lighter, a questioning of things. He must have read us hundreds of books, but the ones I remember are by Thornton W. Burgess, a New England author and conservationist who wrote about forest animals with names like ‘Reddy’ Fox and ‘Buster’ Bear. Dad’s voice, usually definitive, became light, tickling the words in wonder and merriment, nurturing our delight in nature. His “reading voice.”

American novelist Marilynne Robinson encapsulates the importance of reading:1

The frontiers of the unsayable, and the avenues of approach to those frontiers, have been opened for me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitions, earnest, or imaginative; by every good teacher I have had; by music and painting; by conversation that was in any way interesting, even conversation overheard as it passed between strangers.

Language has tremendous power, doesn’t it? Especially when woven into a narrative and carried to us through voice.

Indian/Canadian poet Rupi Kaur delivers poetry sanded to a remarkable grain. Her words are elegant: nothing is present that isn’t necessary, and nothing necessary is omitted. From Kaur’s “The Perfect Date”:2

nothing is safer
than the sound of you
reading out loud to me

It is safety, isn’t it? Comfort.

Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp once wrote that when preparing a dance, she preferred her studio to be warm. “There’s also a psychological component to hear: It calls up the warmth of the hearth and home.”3

Safety. Comfort. Something we all crave, and something we remember distinctly about our childhood (whether it was true or not). And there is the warmth too—parents hold their children on their laps, in their arms.

Illustration "The Comfort of Being Read To" by Marilyn Yee. Featured in "The Comfort and Wonder of Being Read To."
“The Comfort of Being Read To” by Singaporean artist Marilyn Yee.

That feeling of being read to is like the feeling of being led into a world and shown all its intimacies and close-kept secrets. Described perfectly by Rachel Carson, a natural teacher and caretaker, in her book The Sense of Wonder:

It is hard to find adults to read to us when we are adults ourselves. But there are exceptions.

Audiobooks, of course. I spent most of my time in graduate school listening to the marvellous Flo Gibson—her voice is like syrup passing through marbles—reading the collected works of Charles Dickens. (British literature has always held some sort of nostalgic escapism for me.) Gibson put dance in the word “Twist” and when she said “Mr. Bumble the Beadle” – as Dickens made her do quite often because he knew how funny it sounded – it was like the name was tumbling downstairs only to arrive fully standing at the bottom.

But my favorite authorial voice is British actor Martin Jarvis reading P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle series. It is wondrous from word one. An English countryside, a different era, the kind of escapism one gets from gardening or petting a purring cat.

I bought a few Wodehouse hardbacks recently at Hatchards Bookshop (they have an entire wall devoted to him), and I was delighted to find a staff member who not only loved Wodehouse but also loved the Jarvis recordings. (The only thing better than reading Wodehouse is finding another person who also reads Wodehouse and then talking about how you both read Wodehouse. I intend to talk about Wodehouse should I ever casually encounter Stephen Fry.)

David Sedaris once noted his favorite “reading” was Elaine Stritch reading Dorothy Parker. Many people have read Dorothy Parker—her words bounce into our ears. Stritch is singularly good at it. Her voice is not dissimilar to that of Flo Gibson.

A woman who has done more to coax poetry in our everyday speech and wit than anyone alive is Maria Popova, writer and creator of Brainpickings.org. Popova hosts the annual Universe in Verse, a celebratory amplification of science through poetry and the spoken word. To those who participate, thank you for reading to us.

Poetry is best when well-read aloud (although it is also enjoyed in quiet) when humans can add a pause, breath, intonation. Human voice turns heavy mist into high cumulus.

Illustration "The Wonder of Being Read To" by Marilyn Yee. Featured in "The Comfort and Wonder of Being Read To."
“The Wonder of Being Read To” by Singaporean artist Marilyn Yee.

As adults, the joy of being read to expands beyond feeling safe to feeling enlightened, elated, interested. In wonder.

It is not easy to be in wonder these days. Not only do we not have time, but it requires denuding our fragile egos. It is a state of not knowing. Of being affected. Deferring. The older we become, the more threatening this position feels. And with good reason—we’re taught to be in charge, responsible, accountable. We abandon our instinct to listen, learn, and defer. To care.

But we still need to feel comforted. Every human will long for a feeling of comfort at one time or another. Being read to is feeling comforted.

A few years ago, I was caught in a nighttime windstorm in the Virginia woods, the tail end of an off-coast hurricane. Branches, even trees, were falling. It was the closest I’ve been to death. And I walked twelve miles down the mountain to civilization, all the while listening to the great Edward Herrmann reading David McCullough’s book about the building of the Panama Canal.

Falling trees, suffocating darkness, water that wanted into my blood. And Edward Herrmann. I remember nothing about the Panama Canal, but I will never forget that voice. It gave me the illusion of comfort until I found actual comfort.

I cannot express it well, so instead, I’ll pull in Durga Chew-Bose’s simple lines from Too Much and Not the Mood. Her energy and power are infectious.

When I hear a recording of Frank O’Hara recite ‘Having a Coke with You,’ gleefully anticipating him saying yoghurt, saying flu-o-rescent orange tulips.

I listen
to him and I would rather listen to him than all the poets in the world
except possibly for Dorothy Parker occasionally
and anyway she’d hate that.

I wonder if Chew-Bose has heard Elaine Stritch read Dorothy Parker.

I hope so.

The feelings of comfort hold us fast like rotund arms. But comfort doesn’t live our life, it doesn’t extend us into the world. For that, we need wonder. Wonder propels us out into the world and back into forests. We need both comfort and wonder.

My husband reads to my daughter. Inflexion, vocal patterns, tempo, pronunciation. My husband has a “reading voice.” My daughter is so very lucky.

Feel comforted. Be in wonder. Be read to.