Listening to my first audiobook Embracing the Unknown, by Buddhist author/teacher Pema Chodron, a perfect selection for now. It’s not a classic book but a lecture series from a retreat on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and I find it engaging and oddly reassuring. I listen to each chapter as Ruby and I take daily walks to my favorite tree, which in a matter of weeks has shed most of its beautiful flowers, leaving a trail of petals like tears, a reminder of how brief and precious the time of blooming is.
“The distance between birth and death is about 500 feet in the Brooklyn Public Library. “
That is the long-standing first line of my memoir/solo theatre piece/story of becoming death obsessed while pregnant with V, in part a symptom of undiagnosed perinatal depression (about 10% of pregnant women struggle with this. even though it gets far less attention than postpartum depression.) As I learned when I shared my preoccupation, it’s common to think about death when about to give birth – to contemplate the full cycle of life at its inception.
So while I started out with What to Expect When You’re Expecting and a stack of related books, each seemed to me a humorless tome that barely touched on the wonder of growing a person and instead included lists and strict rules to follow to have the perfect healthy pregnancy.
Fortunately I had friends who weren’t parents and could laugh with me: allow yourself one bagel a week? One piece of pie… a month? How sad! Of course I ignored the advice. I already had B, who had thrived with the umami of food from Chinatown and the Middle Eastern stores on Atlantic Avenue, the delicacies from Jewish delis and Italian bakeries….and as many bagels as I wanted.
But this second time was different. I still ate a lot and swam everyday but my mind was elsewhere. The life inside of me would arrive and grow and thrive…and in time, after I was long gone myself, waste away. I longed to make sense of it all and so while B napped and V did somersaults in my belly we walked down to Comparative Religion where a section of books on death provided riveting details of what each denomination believed happened after we died (the Jews basically shrugged and said ‘We’re not sure’ which was likely at the root of my longing for a more reassuring explanation.)
Among these entries was a subset of Into the Light memoirs by those who had died briefly and come back to describe it: generally poorly written woo woo tales that were still enthralling — how could they not be when someone had been to the other side and come back?
Pema had no such experience, but she’d studied a lot with her teachers, and also spent much time with dying students. And her descriptions of the stages of death were concise and accessible, surprisingly grounded for such esoteric material. And funny! Not that there’s anything inherently amusing about dying but much to laugh at in human nature, our combination of curiosity and fear at facing the inevitable.
Time and strong winds have stripped my tree of its flowers, a known part of its cycle, and yet I respond with a shudder as if it’s a trashed hotel room (a trope in many of the shows I find myself streaming), something cruel and destructive. Soon it will be just another denuded tree holding a memory and assurance that it will flourish again next year.
It is a season of unknowns, a Spring as always marked with stunning beauty and impermanence that is part of the journey. I try to embrace it as best I can, a student of this strange and magnificent life.