Shortly after my post on "The Meaning of Life...", I went to see some of my dancer friends perform in a concert that was based on the Walt Whitman poem, A child said, What is the grass?
Ironically this poem is about death...
To prepare for this show, the dancers went away together on a retreat weekend in western Massachusetts.
The bond that was woven on that weekend (working) retreat clearly carried over into their performance.
Small sections of dance were artfully stitched together to create one larger dance piece. The flow was seamless.
In most dance concerts, each dance has it's own music. You hear a song, watch the dance, the lights fade and you clap when it's over... Then repeat this process throughout the show.
But in this show, as in life... the transitions were almost too subtle to notice. Each of the smaller pieces of dance were connected by the natural flow of movement. Sometimes there is music, sometimes not. Music fades in and out. At one point a recording of Whitman's poem is heard and the dancers continue to move through it.
As a member of the audience, there were times when I really wanted to clap for the dancers to show my appreciation for their work. But the flow of movement didn't leave an obvious space for that.
Just as in real life we don't take the time to applaud each decision to transition our life down one path or another.
Of course there are a few obvious times in life that we try to celebrate or acknowledge those transitions, like a graduation or a wedding, for example.
Well one audience member did find such an opening to start a round of applause. If I had to guess, I would say it was the mother of a dancer who just exited the stage.
One mother's applause was contagious... eventually everyone else (unsure at first) did join in with their enthusiastic approval.
Leave it to a parent to go out of the way to help motivate their child. But that was the only spontaneous outburst. The audience became too caught up in the performance to be concerned with such trivial things as clapping... until the end.
And when the end came, there was plenty of appreciation! The performance was thought provoking and profound -- much like Whitman's poem.
If you have never read the poem, here it is:
A child said What is the grass?
By Walt Whitman
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon
out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it lead forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
One of the great things about Whitman is that, for the most part, he speaks his mind and states the obvious without being too flowery about it. Sort of a "manly man's poet."
On the other hand, he tends to write epic poems. Almost short stories, really. So you don't necessarily leave Whitman on the night stand. Although I suppose you could. He is thoughtful enough to break down his epic poems into parts for us.
'A child said What is the grass?' for example is part of a much larger piece of work. In his book Leaves of Grass, there is a poem called, 'Song of Myself.' This poem goes on for over 50 pages. Thankfully it is broken down into 52 sections. 'A child said...' is Part 6 of 'Song of Myself.'
Anyway I thought it was interesting that almost directly after my post about "The Meaning of Life...", that I was invited to re-explore Death.
Yes, I did say re-explore. In my many nature walks, wondering about the meaning of life, it is a natural progression to consider what happens "after life" as well as "before life."
Everyone has their own ideas about what happens when we die. If you haven't really ever thought about it, and are interested in doing a little research, a good place to start is by reading a book called "On Death and Dying" by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. This book is essentially about the 5 stages of grief. In short, it's about how the living cope with death, whether it's their own impending death or the death of a loved one.
Most of what we "know" about death is based on what we learn as a child in religion classes. Or it may be based on what our parents taught us as children to explain the loss of a grandparent or pet or someone else close to us.
And then we spend the bulk of our life finding ways to avoid thinking about our inevitable mortality. Intellectually we know that eventually we all die, but no one wants to face that fact. Some even fear it.
In my opinion, fearing death is like fearing the sunset. No need to fear... in a few short hours there will be another sunrise.
There are many analogies of life and death. Try this: At the end of the dance concert the lights go dark, the music stops, the theater is sent into pitch black with no sound. But suddenly there is thunderous applause and the lights come up on stage. Magically, the dancers are there to take a bow. Then the house lights come back on. There is a Q&A about the performance and then everyone is free to wander around to meet and congratulate the dancers on a job well done! There is even discussion about future performances... and then everyone goes back to their real lives as teachers, parents, students, etc.
Essentially I am agreeing with Mr. Whitman when he says, "There is really no death, and if ever there was... it led forward life."
Almost all religions agree that there is some sort of "After Life." And to go along with that belief, they have given us a way to get there. The Soul.
We are told that when we die our soul goes toward the light to the Pearly Gates where we are met by St. Peter or a swath of virgins, or whoever... depending on your religion.
Whitman even takes into account those who are not religious and who think that when you die, you die... That's it. End of story. He says, "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses. And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."
In other words, from a purely scientific point of view, energy cannot be destroyed. If you paid attention in science class, you know this to be true.
So from this perspective, when we die, our body decomposes into the ground. But the energy or essence of our being, much like the leaves that fall from the trees, becomes fertilizer for the grass, flowers, etc.
We have all heard the expression, "pushing up daisies." And now that I am writing this and thinking about it... it gives new meaning to the title of Whitman's book, "Leaves of Grass."
Either way, soul or energy, it is the cycle of life. The essence of ourselves continues on.
Those of you who know me, know that I tend to look at things differently. And now I am going to ask you to look at this concept of death from a different perspective.
But in order to do that you will need to temporarily suspend your current beliefs. Keep in mind that this will be a temporary suspension and that you are free to go back to your own concept of death afterward. I promise I won't be offended! You may even find that my concept of death fits nicely into your current belief patterns.
We have been taught that we are living this life... and then when we die, a part of us, our soul, continues on into the "after life."
But what if we make, what I like to call the "Copernican Flip"?
Remember Copernicus? He was ridiculed by the masses of people. Outcast by the Church for suggesting that the Earth rotates around the sun, when obviously the sun rotated around the Earth.
I mean come on, you can see the sun rise in the east, and move across the sky until it sets in the west! How could it not be true?
Of course now we know the truth, but old habits die hard. We still say, "The sun rises in the east" hundreds of years later.
Anyway, let's make the "Copernican Flip."
What if... instead of being a body that has a soul that breaks away to move into the "after life" -- we look at it the other way around.
What if we are a Soul that right now just happens to be in this flesh and bones body? I think that would make "death" a little easier to accept. Because from this perspective, death (as we know it) is not an Ultimate Death. It may be the end of my body... but it is not the end of me. The real me lives on.
We see this many different ways in nature: chicks break out from their egg shells, snakes shed their skin, caterpillars break out of their cocoons, etc.
Richard Bach said (and I am paraphrasing here because I couldn't find the exact quote) that death is just another transition, "a bit more radical that puberty."
There is another great quote attributed to Chuang Tzu: "I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?"
And what happens to this Soul? This true us? Where does it go when we shed this temporary home (this body) that we inhabit?
Years ago, I used to work with a choreographer who had a small but beautiful garden. Occasionally I would help tend the garden, pulling weeds or trimming the edges. One day I was just finishing up, getting ready to leave when I saw her husband spraying out the large garbage cans.
I walked by just as he was pouring all the water out of the large can into the driveway.
We both stood there watching the water create a pattern as it flowed down the driveway making several twists and turns. Some water going off on different paths, some wide some narrow, until it came to the road. When the water reached the street, it banked to the left and again created multiple pathways until it disappeared out of sight.
I will never forget what he said.
"Isn't it funny how the water always seems to know where to go?"
That was it. Nothing else. At first I thought he was just being funny, but for days after that I realized how profound his question was.
Of course gravity pulls the water downward. But if it hits an obstacle with enough force it might go upward to get around it. And what of the breaking away and joining back together? The water travels many paths but eventually it always ends up where it belongs.
Let me try to be a little more clear about this. Maybe give you a better image of my theory.
Imagine the most beautiful waterfall you have ever seen.
For the purposes of this analogy let's imagine a large waterfall from a mountainside.
High up on the mountain top is an ice capped peak. Ice of course is just another form of water (H2O). The ice eventually melts, and little droplets of water drip down and join together forming a little stream.
Now imagine that more and more droplets join the stream until eventually they become a powerful river carving its way down the side of the mountain, flowing back and forth around all the little obstacles that it finds.
At some point the river reaches the edge of the mountain. When the river hits the cliff, it becomes a waterfall.
As the river bursts over the edge of the cliff, something very interesting happens. The water explodes into separate entities.
Maybe it becomes a big white frothy stream or a small clear stream of water. It might become small droplets again or maybe even a "spray" of water. And some of the water may even just trickle down the edge of the cliff, not jumping out with the reckless abandon of the other water.
No matter what form it takes, the water all still goes in the same direction. It "seems to know where to go."
Whether the water trickles down the side of the mountain, or jumps out a little only to hit rocks or plateaus and bounce again, or it makes a daring burst out away from the cliff-- all the water ends up in the same place.
It reunites with the river at the foot of the mountain, where it calmly continues to go where it's supposed to go.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, or babbling (water pun intended), I would like to explain the analogy a little more.
Earlier we talked about the Soul. Our essence or the true us. Let's say this is the water. Better yet, we should call it H2O because when our analogy begins it is ice.
So we apply a little heat and the ice becomes a trickle of water that eventually grows. And again for the sake of this analogy... let's say this trickle continues to grow for 9 months (give or take).
Then when it bursts out (often with a scream) it travels its own individual path (or life) until it reunites with the stream at the other end.
Still with me?
All of these individual lives are different. Some trickle down the mountainside taking their time, exploring every nook and cranny along the way. Some may take a more roundabout, troubled path, violently bouncing off the rocks and plateaus all the way down, until it reaches the stream.
Some may take that bold leap out away from the edge of the mountain, enjoying the free fall, possibly getting to the stream a little quicker.
And it is also possible that some of the "spray" may dissolve into the atmosphere before it has a chance travel with the rest of the water on the way to the stream below. But that's OK because we know that all that moisture builds up... and eventually it rains!
Don't worry, "the water always knows where to go."
On the way down, some drops may join other drops to make little "families" or "friends" and then break away to meet up with other drops along the way, until they eventually come to the end of their journey.
Also keep in mind that the way the water reunites with the stream below is as varied as the path it took to get there. Some crash hard, some trickle in...
But very soon after reuniting, you can't even tell which drops were which. They are all the same.
No. Not all the same, as in similar. I mean really all the same. They are one. Right? You can't distinguish individual drops or streams of water once it reunites. (Just as it couldn't be distinguished on the ice capped peak.)
Just one big water. The Ultimate Stream of Cosmic Consciousness (water pun intended again)!
So really, in the Big Picture, I am you. And you are me. We inter-are.
Somehow we forget that along the way. And that's too bad. Because it seems to me, that if we all knew this or realized it or even believed it to be true... the world would be a very different place.
You are welcome to adopt my theory if you want. And yes, it is just a theory. A theory that feels right for me (for now). I'm not stuck on it though. I'm open to other ideas or theories.
So if it doesn't work for you, you are now free to go back to your old thoughts on life and death. Or make up a theory of your own!
Nobody really KNOWS for sure, after all... until it is time to KNOW.
I will leave you with one last quote from Richard Bach that is appropriate to this discussion:
"What the caterpillar calls the end of the world,
the Master calls...
Peace and Love,