Love and Death

I have been playing with my death recently. Actually, it has been playing with me. Now I am in my fifties, and it’s a step less romantic, more chilly. Anyway: it’s coming.

Hodler, ‘Die Nacht’, 1889–1890

One of my responses to dying is fear. I would like some security against it. Or a lively distraction. Unfortunately, I can’t think of what I would like to horde until then. And I can’t think of what I can collect that might give retrospective satisfaction: “THIS is what I spent my life doing”.

When I give up on the fear, and give up on collecting, another impulse arises and in a language new and awkward to me; to spend the present moment of the rest of my life, giving love and care to myself and whomever I am with 1 . That impulse feels right. It feels like the right intention for every moment, and the best resolution to look back on.

Until this point, my thought walk a straight road, but then two voices appear;

One voice is delighted,

“Finally, Desmond! Love and care! I can’t wait!” This voice sings Hallelujah like a gospel choir. In character it’s like a Labrador seeing the coat going on, about to go on a walk.

The other voice is very slick.

It says, “Well! Desmond! Love and care, eh? That’s hardly been your specialty, has it?” It’s a more bitchy, feline voice.

The first voice, while it brings great joy, is also uncomfortable 2. It is not ‘me’. Or at least not my familiar me. I can keep the voice alive, like bouncing a balloon on my hand but without attention it falls into the other voice.

The other voice I dislike. But I find it very comfortable 3. When this voice has taken over, I feel regret after a guest has left, “Why did I spend so long arguing a point that doesn’t matter?“

The metaphor of the balloon isn’t satisfying, implying constant effort to keep an unstable mood afloat. There is also a pun about gravity: love and care aren’t grave enough. Couldn’t love and care be a plant,  growing under good conditions? Like Blake’s sunflower, “Who countest the steps of the Sun” 4.

As long death as is an appeal to love, it isn’t an appeal to fear.

Time and Titration

Titration. The word appears in a book on meditation. And I have no idea what it means. It feels vaguely science-y, an unwilling transportation back to Mr. Prestige’s chemistry class, my shameful lack of understanding at any moment to be uncovered 1. The complete sentence doesn’t help, “Learning to turn our attention back and forth between challenging sensations and our own supportive resources is a valuable skill that professionals call titration” 2.

Titration, helps the internet, “is the slow addition of one solution… to a known volume of another solution of unknown concentration until the reaction reaches neutralization” 3. In more direct language, where mixing everything at once might create an explosion, mixing one drop at a time produces only “a small, manageable fizzle” 4.

The process was imported as a psychological metaphor by Peter Levine, when dealing with difficult personal material. “If we are able to turn our attention back and forth between sources of support… we have a much better chance of working effectively with the traumatic material than if we try to simply stay present with the material all at once” 5.

Frankly, I am suspicious of legitimising anything by rubbing it with scientific language, be it shampoo ads or wonky spirituality. An awful lot of dodgy assumptions are justified by appeals to relativity theory, quantum mechanics, or partical physics 6. But I can see the usefulness here. Titration suggests that pacing is a factor of process. Processing takes time.

Henri Bergson pointed out that mathematics is unlike human experience, as its calculations (1 + 1 = 2) happen outside of time 7. The first 1 doesn’t have to be brought to the other 1, and slowly added to make 2. But when adding sugar to water, for example, I have to wait for the sugar to dissolve. “This little fact”, he says, “is big with meaning”. Equally, the mathematic equation can be instantly reversed upon command (2 – 1 = 1).  But the sugar isn’t taken out of the water so fast. And you can’t unburn a match. Or unpickle a cucumber, as is said of the alcoholic nose.

One of the graces of natural environments is the recognition of pacing. When the leave falls from the tree, it doesn’t drop like a stone. Impatience is obviously unhelpful when something requires time, like the changing of seasons, or the boiling of a kettle. One negative aspect of technological convenience is casual instantaneousness. Turning on the desk lamp, making a computer search, typing these words, these now mundane actions allow no delay between thought, action, and result.

Two sources of light, but what are the consequences of their use as metaphors?

What of internal processes like grief, which required metaphoric digestion, and may never be reversible 8? Efficiency requires speedy ‘closure’ [dreaded word], a reversal to the state before the event. Mathematically this is possible, but if time can’t be reversed, how do you close out part of your own experience? ‘Closure’ suggesting a dimensional boundary door that can exclude the unwanted. But in this picture, where is the space behind that door, outside my self or inside? Either way, that stuff is still there, lurking.

Where conscious recognition may be instantaneous, understanding may require a lifetime of digestion. This is the chasm between information and wisdom. I read the same book again, but it isn’t the same book as ten years ago. So, how do I allow myself the time it takes for change to happen? How do I avoid harrowing cycles of bingeing and despondency? How do expose myself to my fears, but avoid explosions? Titration.

Surviving Winter

I am close with my bicycle. After years of intimacy only the frame, front wheel, and forks are original 1. The front light has blown repeatedly. This is complicated if the cable is broken somewhere, but changing the bulb is easy: presto! Fixed! Light!

This time I replaced the entire unit with a halogen light. Now it is brighter and more reliable. On my first trips through the black polythene tunnel of wet December streets, I perch regularly and lovingly to see that it still shines, announcing me, protecting me.

And this is also my first enlightenment after a week of dense darkness. Winter arrived, restrictive and cold. The darkness had been pressing into me all week. Does this happen every year? Where did all this darkness come from? What am I supposed to do with it?

Here is, if not a solution, at least a strategy at last: keep the front bicycle light shining. Let the rest of the darkness do what it will.

I grasp this sliver of hope. It takes a while for the full significance of the metaphor to arrive; winter, Christmas, lights, the fragile Divine Child.

And while my intellectualism is nauseated by the saccharine cheesiness of this insight, and its hopeless lack of originality, the alternative is equally nauseating, though black.

Here is an alternative image. The figure is 5,000 years old. I don’t know what it is supposed to symbolise. What I see is the small bird in the claws of the large demon. I see the demon as the black night, and the bird as the small light. And I see them all in me.