Lessons from a Funeral

Today we buried my grandfather.

Grampa Henry

While we were never close, it's still difficult to watch someone getting ever closer to the end of their time, when they cease to be a living breathing person and become just another memory in the minds of those around them. To see the loss and pain in the faces of those they were close to, their family and friends.

His passing has helped remind me of some important ideas that we often ignore or neglect to consider.

We are not immortal.

We are part of this existence for a short time. On the timeline of the life of this universe, an average human lifespan is practically nothing. We come into being, we spend some time making the best of our situation, then we're gone, and the universe marches on unaffected. Yet in the years we have, it's up to us to do our best to change that – to make sure that when our time is up, the universe isn't unaffected. It's up to us to do something meaningful, leave something behind, make our mark on history (as relatively short as human history may be).

We are not our possessions.

Particularly in his later years, my grandfather was fairly private and protective of his things. It was his life, and he didn't want anyone else getting their hands on his stuff. No one else had any right to be looking in that cupboard, or that room, and if they did they were obviously trying to steal something. (This caused some drama.)

Yet, now he's gone, and soon his family members are going to be going through his house. Going in every room, opening every drawer, deciding what to do with everything he owned. He can't protect any of his secrets or his possessions. Now they're all just stuff for someone else to deal with.

No matter how hard we try to make ourselves happy by owning things, it's all just stuff. No matter how much we accumulate during your life, it all gets left behind. We can't take anything with us. It stays here. The pharaohs of Egypt tried lining their tombs with fancy clothing, jewels, food, chariots... and eventually all those things were stolen or put into museums for strange people to look at centuries later.

Our own stuff probably won't end up in glass display cases in fancy museums, but we won't be getting any satisfaction from any of it once we're gone. Other people aren't going to remember us for how much stuff we had (unless you're a crazy hoarder, in which case that's probably going on your epitaph). They're going to remember us for who we were, how we spent our lives.

We don't have to be afraid of death.

I went with my family to see my grandfather in hospice care a few days before he passed away. In the few moments when he was awake and lucid, one of the things he kept mentioning was that he wasn't afraid to go. He'd lived a long life, he knew his time was coming, and he wasn't afraid.

Whether this was due to his religious beliefs or not, I don't know. But it's worth noting. Many people fear death, they're afraid of what's on the other side, they're afraid of leaving things undone, of what their absence will do to the world. But in the long run, that fear changes nothing. We can't outrun death, we can only make the best of our time before it catches up with us. Whether we believe in an afterlife or not, death will claim all of us. The only purpose fear can serve is to motivate us to make the best of our time. What happens after (if anything), will happen regardless of how afraid of it we are.

We are social creatures, whether we like it or not.

I mentioned my grandfather and I were never close. It was just one of those family things, where various bits of drama and tension over the years between the various generations added up. We saw them for Christmas, maybe Easter, for Thanksgiving dinner sometimes, and that was about it. He was a fairly terse man, so whenever we did see him it wasn't a particularly emotionally-fraught event.

But lying alone in a hospice bed apparently made him think about family and people he'd like to see. He asked to see my sister and me (among others), despite generally having not had much to do with us in years past. At the end, faced with his own mortality, he wanted one last chance to see his family, to be surrounded by those who should care for him.

Too often we focus on the negatives around us, all the things that have gone wrong, the bits of life we don't like, the anger and bitterness and drama, when we should be taking every opportunity to focus on the bright sides. The people we care about, the relationships that matter. We don't have to leave this world lying alone, regretting the bridges we burned behind us. We can go out surrounded by people who care about us, people whose lives we've touched and whose lives have touched us.

But we have to pay attention to those relationships during our lives, like caring for a garden. If we leave them unattended until the last minute when we suddenly decide they do mean something after all, it'll be too late.

Life is too serious to be taken so seriously.

No matter what we do, we need to enjoy our time here. We do no one any good by slogging our way through life scowling at everything and enjoying nothing. Take the time to smell the roses, as they say, even if you get pricked by a few thorns along the way.


Opportunity and Chaos

Today is my last day at the company where I've spent the last six years. Tomorrow is my first day of exploring a world filled with potentially terrifying opportunities.

As part of an organizational restructuring within my department, the work I've been responsible for over the last two years was merged into a different role. I declined to pursue any of the other positions available, having decided they weren't good matches for my abilities or – more importantly – my interests. So it happens that today, September 30, 2013, is my last day. I leave knowing my experiences at the company, both good and bad, have helped shape me and my career, helped focus me.

The first question everyone asks when they find out I'm leaving is, "where are you going?" The assumption is always that there's a definite plan, that there's something already set up and waiting, that there's another cubicle waiting to be filled somewhere the next day.

Except, there isn't.

What will I do? At first, sleep in. No bleating of an alarm clock to intrude on my blissful sleep, no status meetings, just me and my pillow. Then I'll be taking some time for life – travel, exploring, seeing places I've never seen before. Catching up on my reading list. (Read: roadtrip!)

After that is a vast expanse of The Unknown. There's no defined plan. No clearly-marked path of life to point to and say, "yep, it's all plotted out neatly." The answer to everyone's question is "I don't know." And that seems to freak everyone out. It freaks me out too. But that's okay. It needs to be okay. We need to learn to cope with the unknown in ways that don't always involve fear and panic. There will always be unknowns in life, some bigger than others, some more easily negotiated, but ever present. On the grand scale, changing or losing jobs is pretty insignificant.¹

So no, there's nothing slated to immediately fill the void. But it's amazingly liberating.

I can do anything.

I can stay here. I can (actually, will) move away. I can find another job just like the one I had, or I can find a job in a completely different field. I can lay on the couch for a week straight downing pizza rolls and Mountain Dew, or I can go to the gym every day and explore the limits of my fragile physical existence. I can take up yoga. I can learn the finer points of the Elvish languages.

Life becomes all about possibilities, which feels like a better mindset than outright panic. (Though I'll admit to my share of anxiety over the last few weeks.)

Today is the end of one opportunity that opened six years ago, and the beginning of a whole new slew of opportunities that may be perfect or may just be stepping stones to The One True Thing.

There's no plan. And that's okay.

¹ I don't wish to belittle the hardship of losing a job, particularly in the current state of the economy when many are struggling. I'm by no means rich, but through a combination of good fortune (getting out of college with no student debt) and common sense money management (mainly, spend less than you make) I'll survive.


Worse than gone

There's some county-owned parkland in my city. It's not much, just some gently rolling hills with a few lightly-worn walking paths and occasional rocky bits, but it's nice. It's usually quiet but for the sound of the wind and the distant muted roar of freeway traffic. During the few months each year when the weather relents and we're graced with warm sunshine, it's a great place to clear your mind with an easy hike.

I come up here occasionally, to the back half of the hills, where a handful of old buildings sit, mostly worn down and sagging from age and neglect. The buildings aren't why I come. I come for the butterfly tree.

There's really nothing particularly special about this tree. It's just a tree like any other. I don't even have a photo of it. But it's pretty, and during the summer it's usually host to a rabble of butterflies. There's a small wooden bench a few dozen feet from its base, where I come to sit and relax in the sunshine and breeze. Sometimes I have a book with me, sometimes I have nothing but the butterflies and trees and clouds to watch. And it's peaceful.

Except now there's a massive construction project going right through it. The freeway is being extended, rebuilt, redirected, and its new path will take it past here. One of the old buildings will be preserved, the others will be razed. Presumably the giant tree will be left, though separated from the rolling hills and walking paths by a swath of concrete and steel. On my walk out to the hills yesterday, I was blocked by this sight.

And thus my favorite place to sit and clear my head of all the random thoughts of the day is worse than gone: it's unreachable.

There are similar benches elsewhere on the hills, but none quite like the one under the butterfly tree. The one I can't get to anymore.


Why is there no maximum wage?

Wanted to capture this series of tweets by @sargoth in regards to a post-work society, where our lives aren't based on and determined by our capability to find and consistently do work.

She continues:

I wonder how many would keep working after the maximum wage limit had been reached. #

The implicit critique of the contemporary labor market found in the last tweet. It astounds, even as it flabbergasts. #

Let's see. What's the motto of the labor market as we know it? #

"You work or you die. This has to be, as no one would work if their survival didn't depend on their working." #

Funny how work is a right, a duty and a necessity, all three in one. #

"You are free to work if you want, but if you don't want we will use symbolic violence on your ass until you do." #

I'm not sure this is a crowning achievement when it comes to sustainable societal designs. #

What's the reason behind this insistance that everyone absolutely must Have A Job? #

Surely it can't be because there's a lack of things in the world. On the contrary - the world has more stuff than the economy can handle! #

If one wanted to improve the moral character of everyone, then one could surely devise a scheme less roundabout than a labor market. #

I have this nagging suspicion that it might have to do with class. #

Imagine class in a society which is not based on everyone working. #

One would have to revamp the structure of social stratification. Find new ways to make it clear to everyone that some are more than others. #

This would - as you are right to point out - include somewhat of a change. And change never comes easy to those who would lose from it. #

We have the technology, production capabilities and the distribution mechanisms in place. A post-work society can be done. #

It's funny how it's not the massive unemployment in the West that's causing the economic crisis. Funny, and quite telling. #

I somehow can't imagine David Cameron speaking to the people, saying that we must all work to fill this year's quota of Abstract Work. #

Not any particular work. Just work in the abstract, general sense of something being done in a workplace. #

Cameron: as you all know, our new alien overlords will blast our planet to bits if we don't all contribute to the Work Effort. #

Not quite feeling it. #

But if we're not working for an externally imposed will that will kill us all if we don't-then who, what and why? #

Replacing "evil alien overlords" with "the economy" seems somewhat lacking. In general. #

Never before has the gap between what is and what could be been greater. #

If you want proof that ideology is still at work, then casually mention the possibility of a post-work society. It will manifest itself. #

A post-work manifesto. Brought to you by the forces of industrial overproduction, global communications and labor market oversaturation. #

Let's call it a [/rant]. #

Johanna Drott, aka @sargoth


Time for Life

My girlfriend and I recently took a roadtrip to northern Minnesota for a weekend. After an eternity in the car, we arrived to a land of trees, and giant lakes, and more trees. And porcupines.

We got to spend a good portion of the weekend trampling through the woods with her dog, ducking under branches and stepping over fallen trees, breathing amazingly clean, crisp winter air, with leaves and dirt and sticks crunching under our boots.

And then the weekend ended and we returned home, to a world of concrete and asphalt and car exhaust. No me gusta.

After spending even one weekend just enjoying the beautiful outdoors and being free of any real responsibilities, coming back to a life of sitting at a computer all day was jarring and unwelcome and distasteful.

Then I see an article about a 2,650 mile trail from Mexico to Canada that people take five months to hike, and it makes me sad because there’s no way I can take five months off of work to do something like that. (Not that I would survive that kind of hike right now anyway.) I don’t have anywhere near the kind of vacation day availability that such a trek would require. And I came to a realization. I am tired of having my life dictated by when I have to be back at work.

Continue reading “Time for Life”