Mortality. It’s pretty much a cliché that a diagnosis of cancer causes a person to say something like “I’ve faced my mortality.” Mortality is, if not totally concrete to a person who’s had cancer, then is quite a bit less abstract than it was before. For me, in the concrete, tangible moments of my life, my mortality asserts itself as a prickling under my armpits, or a sudden gasp of breath, of a strange thought like “I want this song playing in my ear when I die,” or terror clenching me so tight in its grip that all I can do is curl up in a ball and wait for it to let go and pass, or even a twinge along the thin red scar on my chest. It’s like a cold flash. Afterward, I get up and go about my business. Just now mortality came to me when I played a certain chant I love called “Ong Namo.” I’d come back to my room after drinking coffee and chatting with students, and I wanted some music in the background while I worked on writing my lecture for tomorrow. The chant begins this way: “Oh my beloved, kindness of the heart, breath of life, I bow to you. And I’m coming home. (Repeat 4x). And then the Pali chant begins with a flute, drums, etc. I was putting some dishes away from lunch, and the part of my mind which acknowledges my mortality imagined those words playing at the hour of my death. Who thinks that??? the part of my brain that believes I’m immortal asked then. Who is that morbid??? Cut out the Eastern European darkness, damn it. Be an American, damn it! And then, as I continued to do my chores, washing out my coffee cup in the sink, it struck me that one doesn’t face mortality. Mortality is, in my imagination, as un-faceable as the burning bush, as a nuclear flash, as (for me, anyway) Phillipe Petit’s very first step onto the high wire stretched between the World Trade Towers in the pre-dawn twilight. Or the moment when he lies down on that wire, out in the middle of its sway, in the wind above NY City. I can’t describe the face of my own mortality, or the abstract face of everyone’s Mortality. The abstract idea is like some stone monument of poetry and philosophy that’s out on a vast desert, and no one’s ever found it. Mortality has not stared me in the face. I wouldn’t recognize the face of mortality if it cornered me in Safeway.
No, I realized, drying my hands on a towel, mortality is tiny. Mortality is inside me. A seed planted deep. The seed has always been there (I’m thinking of the lines of a poem right now, Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” when she says “There is a ladder. The ladder is always there, hanging innocently close to the side of the schooner." I'm thinking There is a seed. The seed is always there, planted innocently in the earth behind the solar plexus.) The seed is always there, yes, like the innocently dormant cancer cell, or the faulty gene, or the coding within each cell describing its senescence, or the life and death of the apple tree trapped within the seed, there at birth, in each and every one of us. But it is buried so deep, we forget it's there. Or we never knew. You can even eat an apple in such a way that you never see the seeds within it. But in the last two years, from time to time, I have seen the seed, felt its presence in various ways, as flat-out terror, as grief, as worry, as despair. But yesterday I felt it in a different way, and this is another aspect of the seed, another piece of its biology.
Some background: I’m in Anchorage right now, teaching for 12 days in the university’s low-residency MFA program in creative writing. So I have this little dorm room of my own. And being a nester, and having driven here in my friend’s spacious car, I packed along a ridiculous amount of stuff from home: about 25 lbs of books, about 25 lbs of organic carrots in a cooler, a juicer, a quilt, a yoga mat, several pairs of shoes, and the makings of a tiny altar. As usual, I sat cross-legged in front of that altar first thing yesterday morning to do my daily ritual, reading a little something from the Book of Awakening, writing out some intentions/prayers, writing out some gratitudes, sometimes now even a rote activity. But this time, for some reason, writing out what I was grateful for the previous day (i.e., eating Indian food with three writer friends, one of whom was poet Gary Snyder; for Derrick, Nancy, Rich, Kristine, Margaret, Greta, Zack, Sherry; for poetry; for my run; for my health; for my recovery; for spontaneous writing with a flash-mob by the pendulum in the UAA library that got me out of an ego-funk, etc.), I was suddenly overcome (if I weren’t on the floor I’d have likely dropped to it) with gratitude for being alive, for being a living, breathing creature on this earth, for getting to be here on earth, for two more years of friendship, writing, thinking, reading, being with whales, running, yoga, meals, gardens, travels, conversations, coffee, walks, misunderstandings, music, waking up beside my love, showers, hikes, trips to Prince William Sound, kayak paddles, rain storms. It felt like I was being swept up by a flash flood thick with memory. Maybe it’s that daily listing of gratitudes that had suddenly “lipped the orgiastic pool” as the poet Stanley Kunitz wrote in “King of the River” (which is about salmon but really about sex and mortality). I mean I started sobbing. I mean I started saying thank you over and over again, and I wanted to call someone (I actually did walk across the hall to knock on my friend Nancy’s door, but she was at breakfast, which is good, as I might have appeared slightly crazed, like the reincarnation of Christopher Smart dropping to his kneels in a public square chanting the praises of his cat Geoffrey). I wanted to tell someone how god damned lucky I felt.
To hold that seed, small, oval, mahogany-skinned. For a moment, to hold it in your hand. For a moment, to look right at it. Does it also look back? Because to look at mortality is not to look at death (who can, really?) but to look at life. And isn’t that just as scary? Because isn’t life just too rare to comprehend, doesn't it burn too brightly, isn't too incomprehensible, the unlikelihood that you’re alive at all, and that you get to hold a moment in your hand? Inside that moment, I was a person with no future, only a past, and that past spilled its banks, and carried me downstream. And I let it.