This essay primarily deals with the challenge of explaining death to a child. I do some shit-talking at the beginning but it’s all super poignant after that. Coming into this week I had a lot of thoughts and opinions regarding the MAGAt attack on the capitol. I think all the obvious bases have been covered at this point and that any useful or interesting thing I might say can wait, save the following comments.
- Thank you sincerely, universe, for that guy who shot himself in the dick with a Tazer, had a heart attack, and died. Also, my eternal gratitude for the lady with the Gadsden Flag who was, delightfully, tread upon. Your jokes aren’t very good a lot of the time, but I think you should consider this for your ‘tight five’.
- For way different reasons than the fascists, I would absolutely love to see Mike Pence hung and would delight in all the animated GIFs that would follow.
- It’s very pleasing to consider the fact that the full repressive power of the state might be directed at the living idiots who drive their F-150s around with Trump flags waving behind. Please enjoy your decade or so of infiltration, surveillance and harassment, dicks.
- To those who assert that the far right is somehow representative of the ‘white working class’ and therefor worthy of understanding, I beg of you: Shut the fuck up. To paraphrase a friend, these people are drawn from the relative minority who still have something to lose. The cleaning ladies who drive for Uber at night didn’t hop on a plane to go to D.C. with the intention of murdering people.
THE OTHER STUFF
“Will we wake up in the body of a buffalo,
Running through the fields with our old friends?
Or will we sleep with our favorite ghosts?
I’m just wondering what comes at the end.
I hope I meet you again.” – At the End by Cloud Cult
I live with my sister’s children. I love them both, very much. It is unlikely that I will have kids of my own in this life, save the insects, bacteria and fungi who emerge from my remains when this act (and which act is it?) is over.
So, I consider them mine in some senses. I get away with not having a financial responsibility towards them, and I don’t have to deal with the drudgery of social reproduction. I basically just get to hang out and be. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.
My nephew is almost six. As he grows he wants more to do with his friends than he does with me and I think that’s great. I was an insular child and I am an insular adult and a lot of the time I wish I wasn’t. I’m happy for him that there’s joy in friendship.
He’s also an athlete. It’s really weird that a six year-old has an eight-pack. It’s even weirder that I’m envious.
Another thing about him is that he suffers tremendously. This suffering doesn’t come from the exterior world, or not immediately. His feelings rise up spontaneously.
He’s a smart child and an extremely orderly boy. He likes lists and organization and completion. When something interferes with these ethics he appears to be tortured. He cries, he fights, he attacks objects and launches them across the room. These are the kind of hyperventilating freak-outs that cause all of us to fear for him. It’s the slippery slope that leads adults to medicate kids.
I don’t want for him to have the kind of life that I’ve led. He’s young enough that these periods of violent despondency don’t turn into a kind of meta-worry where the possibility that misery will consume every moment of your life fuels the object of concern. He’s still in the moment, that fuzzy period we all have in which memory is amorphous. This is a place where adult brains can’t really tread.
When these episodes of despair strike I am not on the scene. This occurs in his parents’ sphere. I can hear the explosions, the rage and despair, and when it’s all over I think a horrible and true thought: You ain’t seen nothing yet, kid.
I’ve got things to tell him, but not until he’s ready. These aren’t necessarily happy lessons. He’s in a kid’s karate class and they’re giving him all sorts of dumb ideas about how to hurt people. I can teach him how to throw a punch and I can provide some guidelines for strategy when in a physical conflict: Never get in a fight that the other person can anticipate. Never get in a fight you can’t win. Initiative is essential. Always cheat.
Then there’s drugs, a thing I know quite a bit about, and a thing that he will assuredly encounter. I don’t know how much of my experience will be useful to him. I will warn him of the treacherous terrain of drinking. It is social until it’s not. It’s a quick descent from a laughing circle of friends to lying on the pavement with a pool of vomit burning your skin.
I don’t know what to say about weed. The science is in and it’s definitely no good for kids. Otherwise it’s great until it isn’t. It can get you through the disappointment and tedium of life, but it might be more worthwhile to throw yourself into some other plane of transcendence. I could teach him how to roll a visually appealing joint, but I won’t.
In terms of the sacraments, this will come up, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and I will promise him, hopefully with his parent’s blessing, that when he comes of age I will sit beside him as he encounters the landscape of pure signification. Maybe he’ll have something to tell me when he surfaces.
But for the time being there are only two things I have for him, and this is an interest in mycology and a love of cycling. These have both taken root and I consider this a good start.
We’ve been going on mushroom walks for a while now. We drive to a mixed pine/oak county park, a relic of human effort. In the early 1800’s a farmer planted white pine seedlings, for economic purposes that aren’t clear to me now. The plantation survives, a relic that is both natural and social. Mushrooms don’t give a shit about this at all. They’re internationalists.
On the way I restrain my cursing against the ugly bulletheads who populate this place. He won’t get it. He doesn’t know what exactly it says about a person to have a Blue Lives Matter bumper sticker.
He is a lover of lists and games that involve categorization. Sometimes he wants to count the states that we’ve been to. We go through one at a time and I’m always surprised by how many places I’ve passed through in which I’ve done nothing more than take a piss.
More often is a mushroom guessing game. I describe morphological characteristics of a mushroom and he tries to figure out the species I’m thinking of. This reveals to me that I don’t know as much as I think. There aren’t that many that I can effectively describe so we circle around the same 15 species endlessly. We should use this as a jumping off point for both of us to broaden our knowledge but we don’t.
On our most recent trip I took us on a detour. There is a piece of what appears to be parkland, or at least ‘green space’ that is nothing more than a forgotten road and a colonial cemetery.
Christmas day about five years ago was both warm and humid and as I was driving by I saw a great many mushrooms growing from the trees on this site, and found approximately 70 pounds of oyster distributed throughout.
I cultured samples from four different sites, wondering if this was one interconnected organism, but the mycelium didn’t join together seamlessly. Were I a trained mycologist I could have asked some interesting questions about this population, but I’m not. I’m left to wonder.
On this stop I was hoping to see some remnants of a fruiting event, but there has never been a recurrence. It’s fascinating how transitory these things are. At one point in time they claimed every piece of wood to be had, never to return.
We walked through and there was nothing fungal happening. To some extent he understands this. Just like animals, fungi relax in the winter. But he wanted to see the rest of the site and so we walked towards the cemetery.
I was somewhat surprised that he didn’t know what it was. We’re so often confronted with the icon of the grave marker. Halloween sees the herald of corpses popping up on countless suburban lawns.
Maybe when you’re that young they’re just there, signifying nothing. But in a tiny patch of woods they become more ominous. They aren’t a decoration. They aren’t quite relics. No one living remembers the people beneath them but there is ownership expressed regardless. A fence surrounds them, a gate swinging wide, dragging a busted lock and some chain along.
I explained. These are one of the ways that people address the tasks that death creates. A body is cleaned and clothed. A deep hole is dug in the ground. They are lowered, in a box made of wood, and then buried. A stone marker is placed over the grave. It tells you their name, when they were born and when they died, and offers some reminder that they were loved.
He was uncomfortable with this, I could tell, but children are curious and they’ll brace against discomfort for a while if there’s information to be had. We walked around the fence, and there was a grisly thing to behold.
A fox had died in the summer. Somehow it had expired as it tried to pass through the fence. It’s remains were frozen. No smell, but the melting of its flesh was like a halted waterfall, putrefaction waiting for the chemical processes of death-becoming-life to resume.
He asked why it was there and I know something about this. The patch isn’t far from the road and where we live the automobile is the most vicious and wasteful predator. Injured animals make their way through the brush to this clearing and fall for the last time. I’ve seen many deer skulls here and a racoon’s remains that held onto its fur and not much else.
“Why” is the constant question. Where all the other questions have some definitive answer, ‘why’ goes all the way down. It seeks meaning. It opens onto ‘how’ so often, but you can’t answer ‘why’ with ‘how’. ‘Why’ is a search for meaning.
I don’t know how exactly to explain this phenomenon in which creatures in their agony seek this place. Maybe it’s simply familiarity, but I like mystery. So I tell him the best answer, if not the most true answer, to this question: It’s because they know that this is a place for the dead.
Beside the cemetery is a ‘wolf tree’, a massive, ancient oak. It is dying in that glacial way that trees have. There are several species of fungus living in it. Year after year they dissolve its cells. Year after year another massive branch falls to the ground. But come spring it still puts out leaves. In the fall it will still drop acorns. It lives hand in glove with its mortality. It shades the cemetery, and provides shelter to the creatures that end beneath it.
I don’t know if my answer satisfied.
When I was a child, a bit older than he, I became abruptly and painfully aware of the universality of the phenomenon of death. My whole social world would one day end, at a time not of my choosing. It was likely a fact that the promises of Roman Catholicism were just a fantasy. I lay awake at night sucking on this awareness. As I aged I learned to ignore it, and then, gradually, psychedelia provided me with a greater understanding of this astounding mystery, the pageantry and power of the end.
Will he arrive at this awareness, and will it throw him into a state of existential dread? If yes, what can I tell him?
I guess I’d point at the tree. It lives alongside its death for a very long time. There is no event horizon that marks the end of it and the beginning of something else. I’d point at the headstones, declaring that someone lived and died and that someone gave enough of a shit to memorialize them. Given enough time these too would be weather away to nubs and then nothing. The fence would fall and the dirt that used to be a tree and a fox would bury it.
Then all this would happen again, different in form but similar in content. Other beings tied by kinship would linger here and wonder why we live in the palm of the squeezing hands of fate.
I guess I’d point at the sun and explain that in billions of years it would also die. It would perhaps become a black hole, a force so powerful that it releases nothing and all that it encounters will live eternally in the distortions of time it engenders. I guess I’d say that to the best of my knowledge the universe has refuted the laws of entropy, position and distance. I’d let him know that if there is anything that touches on infinity then nothing ever ends.
I’d tell him to ponder the hubris underneath the fear. Could something so vast care about us? Could something so vast not love us? The answer to both is ‘no’. We’re matter making an endless passage through form. Nothing ends and everything ends. Rest easy. There are tasks and adventures ahead.
After this, he took his first bike ride on single-track and the crushing weight of thought melted for both of us. We rode over fallen trees through a landscape that must have seemed vast to a six year old. He did not want to stop, or use any of the bail-outs. When we finally turned towards the sound of cars displacing air, a tower of steel, rusting and forgotten, lay horizontally, toppled by time.
This too shall pass.