The Lesson of Death

Whether or not my absence from the real world and the social media has been notable or not, I do not know, but it has been quite real. If the truth be told, I have struggled know how to live in this world…to know how to engage it, and perhaps furthermore, to have a desire for this world. Yet, fate has ordained a final treatise on the subject, and so it begins.

One year ago, today, a final nail was driven into a casket holding all one’s hopes, dreams, faith, and love. In 365 days of toil and struggle, grasping about blindly and alone, I’ve searched for something–anything to which one could cling. Something certain. Something constant. Something sure. In the darkness, I have not always found what I was looking for, but I have learned lessons. Lessons that could never repair the irreparable but that could perhaps lead one to accept all that the universe has to offer. The good. The bad. The glorious. The deplorable. Lessons that could never change a life but that perhaps could change a mind.

Two weeks ago, I stood, surrounded by a crowd of nearly 20,000 people. The temperature was adequately below freezing to the be main subject on every lip. The stage was set for the Columbus Marathon, what would be my final race of the year. It would also be the last of a grueling 22 day circuit. In the preceding days, I had already tackled my first marathon and my first 50 mile ultra marathon. Now was my shot to set a final PR for the year. The first time around, I came up short of the 4-hour mark for my marathon. This time, I was dying to break it. The big challenge? 26.2 miles at 28 degrees.

As races often go, the first miles were less than memorable, aside from a bottom lip freezing and me rethinking opting to run in shorts. I thought it would warm up along the way, but it wasn’t until mile 9 that I shed the fleece I was wearing. I was pacing solid sub-9-minute miles all the way. As we broke into the double digit miles, I started shouting random encouragement to my fellow runners. “Ten down! Twenty more!!! Let’s go!” Everyone was so amused. The diversion helped the distance fly by. As the half marathoners turned away at mile 12, I started saying goodbye. I may have asked them to save me bananas as well. And to those who kept on for the full marathon, I said, “That was fun, let’s do it again!” All went well until around mile 17, when my ankles went out. I’ve never really had ankle problems before, but I remembered they’d swelled a bit after the 50 miler. Maybe it was too much.

4A42D47F-411E-4735-8042-FB353573CDF9My pace dropped from sub-9 to over 11. I fought through it for another 2 miles. Every push off and every footfall became more unbearable. I begged my body not to stop. As I was hobbling on, two ladies called out to me, “You can make it! You got us going back there. Come run with us? Just a mile.” I did. One mile closer. Again the pain became unbearable and again I slowed to a faltering limp. I knew my hopes of a sub-4-hour finish were dead. And I made my peace with it. They’re just numbers. They don’t mean anything. We arbitrarily ascribe meaning and purpose to things. If there’s one thing running has taught me, it is this: How you finish is irrelevant. How you commit and invest is paramount. I made my peace with my investment in the race and my commitment to the finish, and though I came in well beyond the 4-hour mark, I had a more enjoyable and fulfilling time than I ever imagined possible.

And that is the lesson. Commit. Invest. And let that be enough.

Some of you may know of my obsession with the perfect music for every moment. I guess it comes with being a filmmaker. You’ve got to have something for every shot, every scene, every emotion. Over the past few weeks, one song in particular has stolen my soul. The artist “Sleeping at Last” moves through the cosmos on one album, and the track written for Saturn is ethereal. Something about the description of the courage of stars. How light carries on endlessly, even after death. It’s stayed in my mind. A hundred million miles away, a star dies, but its light carries on, through space and time forever. And here, as we see the beauty of a twinkling star, we can know for certain, it died long ago. But that doesn’t make the night sky any less beautiful. It just reminds us how rare and beautiful it is to even exist. Nowhere else have we found life. The life we have is not always wonderful or perfect. Sometimes it’s harsh, ugly, and painful. Nevertheless, it is rare. And because it is rare, it is beautiful.

And that is the lesson. Life is rare–and beautiful. And even in death, light carries on. Endlessly.

Today, I was out running trails. Weekends have been my designated time for long runs. An open trail is my sanctuary. It’s been a difficult week, and even driving out to the trail head, I was intermittently on the verge of tears. On the trails, I was alone. I’ve so often found myself alone as of late. As desperately as I have often wished to be accompanied, in the silence and solitude, I see things I’ve never seen before.

Ten miles down the trail, I was doubled over, uncontrollably vomiting what little sustenance I had brought along for the journey. There’s something about those moments before it comes. You know it’s coming. You feel it. It started with the feeling of salivary glands priming the mouth and throat for what was coming. I stopped running. I knew what was coming. Next was the tightening of the abdominal muscles, a visceral seize. But we fight it. We try to hold it down. We try to keep it in. I’ve done it many times. Today, I didn’t. I let it happen. Once. Twice. I stood upright again. I took a deep breath. A third time. And then, at last, I could breathe. And then, at last, I could keep moving.

As I continued making my way down the trail, I started to reflect over the past year and that past moment. We spend so much of our lives fighting what is natural for us because it might be unpleasant for us or for others, because people just won’t understand, because it’s not socially acceptable. We hold on to things because we don’t know what would happen if we let go, because we’re afraid to lose something, because the unknown is absolutely terrifying. Just as the telltale signs made me aware of what was coming, we know, at some point, what lies ahead. All our denial, all our fighting, all our holding on is as useless as a pebble trying to halt the returning tide. I realized, finally, it’s time to stop fighting. It’s time to let nature have it’s way.

And that is the lesson. Nature has a way of correcting itself. It is natural. It is necessary. And as unpleasant as it may be, we need not fight it.

Down the trail, mile after mile, all my eyes could see–the definitive signs of autumn. Some trees clothed in the ever changing brilliance of foliage and some standing naked in the breeze. It’s breathtaking. It’s captivating. It’s death. The leaves are cut off from their life source. The chlorophyl that once filled them disappears. Where once was green, the remnants of glucose and other deposits infuse each leaf in a brilliant display. The final act. As the nutrients cease to flow, the leaf fades until the connection is entirely severed. It’s heartbreaking. It’s beautiful. They fall to the ground without a word. In silence, they decompose. The remnants remain to feed a new life in the spring.

And that is the lesson. Alienated from the source of life, disconnected from sustaining power, dying, one can still bring beauty, and in departing, give life to another.

The reflections of the past hours, days, and weeks have been humbling and liberating. To have been committed and invested, to have given your all is enough. More than enough. Life is rare. Life is beautiful. And the light of life carries on. Endlessly. Nature has it’s way, and we need not fight it. In letting go, there is release and relief. In final moments, beauty will be found by those who are looking. What more can we ask for than a life, an existence, rare, and yet surrounded by wonder and beauty?

There is no greater glory in life than to have beheld the miracles, the wonders, and the beauty of a vast universe. There is no greater honor in death than to have given your all and, in departing, to give a final beauty back to the universe.

 

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