Birthdays and death on our beautiful blue planet

Dear President Trump,

I know this is the fourth time I’ve told you, but I’m sure you aren’t much of a birthday tracker so I’ll remind you that today is my birthday. And it’s Laura’s brother’s birthday as well as the little girl’s across the street. It’s also the anniversary of the Waco massacre and of the Oklahoma City bombing, neither of which will be memorialized in person this year for obvious reasons.

As the various dharma talks I’ve been listening to lately have been reminding me, I’m not guaranteed another year, month, week, day, hour, or even minute. None of us are, and my birthday seems like the perfect day to write to you about this. The monks talk about how they meditate on death, the reality of it, the inevitability of it. They insist this isn’t morbid (and I believe them), but that they do it because we humans have so much difficulty facing and being real about death and they are consciously working against these attitudes in themselves to make peace with death. I’ve not heard them say it exactly like this, but I think they also engage in these meditation practices so that their lives aren’t dominated by all the noise most of us fill our time with to keep ourselves out those existential, mortality-laden dread zones.

The monks do their jobs well – they speak eloquently from their hearts about their personal experiences (as in they are frightened, suffering humans too) while they weave in the Buddha’s teachings. They encourage us listeners to consider our inevitable deaths as opportunities to wake up to our present moments and not take them for granted, to live our life-moments fully. I don’t disagree with any of it and I actually find these teachings really helpful.

You know me well enough by now to know there’s a “dot, dot, dot” or a “but” here, don’t you? If you guessed this then you get a prize because you would be correct. I’m going to tell you what it is through a story a friend shared with us yesterday. This is an old, old friend of ours from graduate school and she lives across the country rather near you. She’s been sheltering in place for five weeks and last week she was having trouble with her connectivity to her workplace in the middle of some pretty heated negotiations. She spent a bunch of time on the phone with her Internet provider and the plan was for them to send out a modem, leave it on the porch, and then they’d talk her through the set-up. Later in the day she figured out that the problem was actually on the workplace end and she was able to get back online to deal with the work situation. The next morning her doorbell rang and a young man of color, the Internet-company technician, was on her porch with the modem ready to install it; she’d forgotten to cancel the order and the company had forgotten her instructions to leave it outside. When she told the young man that she didn’t need the modem after all, he burst into tears. And then she burst into tears.

Our friend has spent her whole work life advocating for people of color. She also has family members who are currently in harms way, unable to shelter-in-place, but this young man’s vulnerability – his naked relief at not having to go into one more stranger’s house and risk infection – helped her crystalize the life and death nature of her work in a solid, heart, sort of way.

It’s this that has seemed to me to be missing from the monks’ teachings on death. It’s one thing for those of us who’ve been afforded boatloads of unearned privilege by dint of our skin color and the ways our society has met us and lifted us up with opportunity to say “ohm, death is a part of life, I’m making peace with death” (or whatever), but it doesn’t seem the least bit fair to suggest that people who are at excessive risk of early mortality because of how this same society has systematically withheld opportunity and punished them for being Black or Hispanic or Native or Asian to “make peace with death.”

I don’t have an answer here, exactly, but I wonder if we can take what’s happening in the world right now and see that real mortality reckoning can’t happen until we level the mortality playing field and no longer have group-based lifespan disparities at all. Then, and only then, can we all “ohm” to our hearts’ content, stop othering one another and death, and live awake on this beautiful blue planet together.

May we commit to sharing safety equitably.
May we be willing to do the deep reparations work we need to do.
May we lift everyone’s health and strength up.
May we not make peace with this far less than perfect set up.

Tracy Simpson

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