Saturday, September 27, 2008

Born to Die?

More riffs on this whole preoccupation with life after life and philosophies surrounding death.

"I don't wanna die, I wish sometimes I'd never been born at all" --Queen

I think I was born for this work. It seems to be my life's purpose -- to explore death. From the time I was five I suffered from thantophobia -- a strong fear of death -- which I don't have now, but it's been a long journey to get from there to here. What could POSSIBLY trigger such a fear of death in a five year old?

My father's father was riding to work in Manhattan on a LIRR train one morning in 1962 when he realized he had lost his wallet. At the time, I was a five-year-old sitting in my den watching television. My mother, of course, was vacuuming -- her favorite pastime -- and could not hear the phone when it rang. So I hopped up off the couch and picked up the phone in the hallway. It was my father's sister, Bette, asking to speak to my mother. I could tell my mother was upset while talking on the phone and did not really understand that my aunt was telling her that my father's father had suffered a heart attack on the train when he realized he could not find his wallet, and that he was being taken to the hospital. I think my mother called my father at that point.

The next phone call came in, and I answered it again. This time it was my father's step-sister, Carol. When I handed the phone to my mother, I heard my mother start to cry and say, "He was such a nice man." My next memory is of sitting in the same place on the couch in front of the television, this time at night with a babysitter next to me as my parents, dressed in black, were going out the door. Sometime later, possibly the next day, I recall that I was kneeling on the living room sofa looking out the front picture window at a gray day with a heavy rain, while a Rachmaninoff symphony played on the stereo. Everything just felt sad -- the music, the weather, the atmosphere in the house.

I was always the curious child who asked all the difficult questions. What was going on, I wanted to know. Grandpa H. had died. What's that? What does "died" mean? It means he is gone and will not come back. What? Why did that happen? His heart stopped and he died. I hope that doesn't happen to me.... It will. It happens to everyone. What????????? Don't tell me ! THAT is going to happen to me? And not just to me but to my PARENTS? And my BROTHER? and my OTHER grandparents?

That’s where it began. The fears, the sleepless nights, the sense of dread…who says childhood is innocent and carefree?

My older brother was the scientific type who read all the books about the planets and bugs and rocks and chemistry. I must have been about seven when we had a discussion about the end of the world. I said, “I’m afraid that the world will end during my life, and I’m afraid of what that will be like” Well, I said it in my seven-year-old voice and thought process. He told me, “No, the way the world will end is that the sun will die out and the earth will freeze and that won’t happen for a long, long time.” (so much for Global warming). “You will already be dead,” he said. There was that word again. So what was worse? Being dead before the end of the world? Or living UNTIL the end of the world. Either way, there was no way out of it. It just boggled my mind, and affected my ability to live without worrying about everything. At church, when the priests would talk about judgment day – how we would all rise from our graves to be judged by God on how we lived our lives – my seven-year-old mind saw that as the ultimate horror show. I ran out the door of the church on several occasions and threw up in the parking lot.

As a teenager, my fears became more real. I had heard about more people, even my own age, who had died. Frequently, my perceptions about being dead and being buried and no longer existing would overwhelm me in the middle of the night and I would go to my mother’s room literally screaming in fear that I needed someone to help me. Get me out of this situation! But she couldn’t. How could she? She was in the same boat. She stayed awake with me as long as she could and tried to help distract my thoughts – normally through a creative outlet like drawing a picture or a distracting one, watching television or reading a book. What did NOT help was when she tried reading the Bible to me – something that allayed her own fears, but stirred mine.

For a time I became excessively religious – almost superstitiously religious – and read the Bible on my own from front to back, listened to Christian radio stations and read every popular fundamental Christian book I could find. I became fearful of not following the rules that were set forth in those texts lest I not make my way to an after life in paradise. When I decided that I had allowed myself to become a doormat to those less concerned with being good people, I had had enough. The fear of death gradually became repressed, surfacing only briefly in the middle of the night through my early marriage, but the curiosity about it became stronger. I had to figure this out my OWN way in order to be able to put the subject to rest and get on with my life.

Today I will say that I have no fear of death itself, but perhaps the process of dying is scary – or the unknown hour of the event itself in my life. While I am more comfortable with my own demise, I have had only limited experience with other loved ones dying – and when my grandmother, to whom I was very close, died at 92, six years ago, it still felt wrong that she was no longer physically here. I dread to think how I will feel when my own mother dies or if I were to lose someone else I am close to. My eldest son is a fireman, and people ask me if that scares me. It does not. But I cry when I see mothers of firemen who have died holding their sons’ photos or helmets and mourning their loss. I can imagine their pain of loss, but think that what I have come to believe about death will make future loss of that kind in my life easier.

So how do we learn to come to terms with death? I can’t possibly have been the only child to experience that dread. My younger son said to me one day as a child that he did not want to get old and die. I knew what he was feeling. But he has had close friends die at young ages – 14, 19. He’s seen classmates die in car accidents. It scares him, and he does not want to talk about it openly to me. But he knows that I have strong beliefs about life after life and if he needs to he can come to me.

Americans tend to ignore death’s reality. Doctors don’t like to tell their patients they are likely to die. At funerals, the dead are positioned to look as if they are asleep, and there are even drive-in wakes – where you drive up to a window to pay your last respects. Death is not treated realistically in movies or television shows. More than sex, it is the great taboo that people don’t want to hear about or witness or think about in any realistic way.

Religion is supposed to provide the answers, but as a society we look more and more to science to give us the REAL story. And in religious circles, what is written about in a book for one group can differ from what is written about in another – and on top of that interpretations by religious leaders and scholars bring more variation to the answers.

Science looks at death from THIS side of the coin. What can they find out up until the point of death, and what do they observe happening to the body. They might look at what people say before death, or how they act. (Do they talk about knowing they will die? Do they see or hear things that are related to their possible imminent death?) Even Near Death Experiences (NDEs) have been investigated, but are controversial. If it can’t be proven, documented or replicated, can it be scientifically sound evidence? (a TIME magazine article in September 2008 notes that Dr. Sam Parnia of NY's Weill Cornell Medical Center will be doing a study to investigate claims of outer-body experiences during operations, taking the lead from numerous patients over the years who claim to have knowledge of what was going on in the room while they were being operated on, from a point of view near the ceiling of the room).

In the early 19th Century, scholars and psychologists, and physicists (see Ghost Hunters by Deborah B
lum)were looking into claims of psychic experiences, ghostly apparitions, communication with the dead, and with powers that defied the normal realm of experience for most human beings. These visionaries saw a need to investigate claims by the masses to assuage fears and defy exaggerated claims while determining the legitimate experiences from the fraudulent.

What is interesting about the death phenomena is that people tend to choose a belief and stick with it no matter what may be presented as evidence. Their belief may be what you see is what you get – you die and it’s over—or the faith-based religious claims to what they can expect. No matter that the ideas presented by religions are not evidence based or proven scientifically, people are willing to buy into that. When television or the internet provide experiences surrounding death or life after life as an alternative way of documenting the idea of death, people often weigh that against their scientific or religious dogma, without seeing it as a source of information about what other people are finding out or experiencing in their lives about these issues. OR, they watch the shows or go to the sites and find it hard to believe that the things claimed to have happened, really did happen. And then there are those who take those personal experiences of real people and make their own judgments about what is really happening.

These are the issues I want to explore. Because, as the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying says, we are here to prepare for the afterlife. And to prepare for the afterlife, we need to know what to expect or it will overwhelm us. I liken it to preparing for childbirth – when I was pregnant with my first child, I read a book about childbirth in which one woman described it as “feeling like being run over by a train.” Ugh! Again. No way out of this—that baby was coming out of me one way or another, just like I was going to leave this earth someday, one way or another. But a nurse told me that not knowing what to expect in childbirth made the process so much more scary than it had to be. And I believe that not knowing what to expect in death – or not knowing what one believes about the afterlife – makes the reality of it that much more difficult. And the way we as individuals deal with that knowing is what I am exploring, especially in its iterations through popular culture.
LIFE LESSONS -- "Let the Man Come to You"

In my life I have great luck with money and achievement--sometimes more than most other women. Where I do not have luck is with relationships -- and sometimes it seems in that arena I also have more (lack of luck) than other women. At one point in my life I decided to take ballroom dancing in lieu of therapy for depression -- depression brought on by said lack of luck in relationships. Over the five year period I danced with my teacher, John, it became apparent that the lessons I learned on the dance floor could possibly constitute a philosophy of life.

For a woman on the dance floor, as my teacher told me over and over, it is imperative to the success of the dance that I let the man come to me. "Don't be so anxious to do the next step that you anticipate his next move or mess up the rhythm by rushing through the move you are doing together." I had to stop my natural urge to take the reins and make the dance my creation. Until I learned to do that, I could not truly enjoy dancing at its best. For years, other male partners I danced with at social events would say to me, "When are you going to learn to follow?" It's a hard concept for a woman like me, one who had learned in life to take charge of a household and situations that needed handling, to give up “contributing” my management of a situation, even if it were only a dance.

What I finally learned, to the extent that I DID learn to follow, was that I had to provide the man with a ready form – a dance position indicating that I was ready to take his lead and one that would make it easy for me to know what he wanted me to do. I had to be patient and not rush the steps and not crowd him so that he had to take a step back or move out of my way.

While John and I would joke that perhaps I should use what I learned on the dance floor in my relationships, I said that it didn’t always work that way in real life. But I HAVE found that in many ways it does. Particularly at the beginning of a relationship—when things are new and not clear about what direction they will take. It makes me cringe to say it, because the 1970’s feminist doctrine I grew up on is fighting that notion, but it seems that it works much better to wait for things to happen than to make them happen. And maybe that is not true for generations that follow mine – they were brought up in times past that when only men would be the leaders. Perhaps that is the key to the cougar phenomenon – younger men liking the cougar (feminist era) women taking the lead with where things will go. Somewhere in there is a desire for a balance of movement, leading and following, and enjoying the dance.

LIFE AFTER LIFE LESSONS -- "Look for the Ringpop"

An interesting philosophical/spiritual side to the idea of taking the lead and learning to follow is emptying the mind. “To look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness. Freeing oneself from words is liberation,” says the Bodhidharma. I first learned about this concept in the half sleep-half awake state early one morning before work about 11 years ago. I was counting the minutes to the time I had to force my weary body from the warm secure comfort of my bed and in my half sleep – or possibly in not using my “mind” but my unfocused awareness—I realized something that is actually hard to put into words. The thought, if I can call it that, that I had at that moment was that while on the clock there were four minutes until the time I would be getting out of bed—there actually was not a certainty that I would be getting out of bed in four minutes. That each of those moments was an eternity in itself for whatever I was experiencing in that moment – that while I was lying in bed, that was the reality of my experience and that in less than four minutes, when I was expected to get up, anything could happen to change that future reality. I could suddenly die and never get out of bed, or an explosion could occur making it impossible for me to get out of bed. So that my true reality was that for that moment I was in bed, perhaps for eternity, until I actually would get out of the bed. And that I should experience that fully for the time it is my reality. I later came to learn about that as a meditation skill of "being present in the moment. "

Akin to that concept was the fact that actually experiencing it as an awareness happened while not thinking – but perceiving the eternity of the moment – perceiving that there is a reality beyond what my mind creates as reality. And what I later learned that to be, in reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, was that perceiving my life as being on one side of a veil beyond which lies the true reality – the rigpa—is a lesson necessary in life to prepare oneself for death. To see the reality beyond the veil, to look for the rigpa, the true reality behind what is happening in my life.

This had been a concept that came to me in other times of my life, often quiet and pensive moments that I could sneak in during highly stressful times that made me wonder why life had to be so hard. I would see the light from a window shining onto a tabletop and it would trigger in me a realization somehow that the things happening around me were not the important thing to focus on – that there was an ongoing higher level to everything I was experiencing.

I was explaining this concept to my friend on a subway, after I had read about it in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and in straining to hear me over the background noise of the train, she asked, “Look for the what? The ringpop?” We laughed at the thought of that – ringpops are lollipops shaped like gems atop little plastic rings that kids can wear on their fingers. While shopping soon after that I came across a bin of ringpops in a store and bought two for each of us to hang on our bulletin boards at work to remind us to “Look for the ringpop” in our daily experiences to keep things in perspective.

Moral of the story? Letting go of control and preconceived notions and experiencing things beyond our idea of reality.

Friday, September 26, 2008


My first post is to explain my blog name -- Life After Life. My dissertation is focused on the television genre that explores life after death in non-fictional ways. Shows about real-life mediums, real-life ghost hunters, shows that document “hauntings” or supernatural or paranormal experiences and psychic phenomena attributed to real people and places.

My work includes marketing and public relations for Teachers College. In this role social media and having an effective online presence is an important skill. We are debating about whether we want to have a Wikipedia for our unit.

Additionally, I import Hungarian Wine, and began a blog at some point that described my experiences in becoming a wine importer and why I chose Hungarian wine to import. My web site for my company, Kristof Wines, is being used to educate and provide interactive feedback on the wines. I plan to include video clips, blog entries, and chat boards to bring interactivity to the educational site. Perhaps I will create a Wiki for my company.

My goal in this class is to learn how to take the various social media and web features and put them together to create the possibilities described above for my business and my role as Director of Marketing.

I may also like to find ways to publish my ideas on paranormal-based reality television as well as to possibly conduct interviews with people who watch these shows to add to my data collection.