I also felt at least two things. First, I felt a familiar malaise that ebbs and flows whenever I ride in metal and glass enclosures on rubber wheels and hard pavement through suburban sprawl. Second, but no less intensely, I felt a familiar emotional reaction welling up in my chest, the one that rises like a wave or an allergy whenever somebody evokes the language or symbols of evangelical Christianity. Having spent my formative years immersed in that religious tradition, and more recently reckoning with it, my cuts are deep from the metaphorical stained glass of the Church. It is not an overstatement to say that I know these feelings too well. They are as familiar to me as the noises drowning out the birds or the thumping sounds rattling windows and eardrums. They are feelings just as disconcerting as one might perceive the message on the man’s sign: ‘The end of all things is near’.
As the light turned green and the machines got louder with acceleration, my foot finally settled down onto the pedal. My thoughts remained on the man’s sign, his preaching into the air, and the noises that made it impossible to hear anything that might have been worth hearing. Then came what might seem like a most dreadful thought to some people: I thought that the man’s sign must be heralding one of the truest statements.
Indeed, the end of all things is near, for the end of each thing is already present in its beginning. The green sprout in the spring becomes gold on an autumn day and then falls back to the ground. We are born and we die. Mystics have said that your death accompanies you through your whole life. Death is your quiet and faithful companion, like an angel or a ghost. With these thoughts of sprouts and autumn, angels and ghosts, cycles of life and death, I kept driving onward. I arrived at the home of my next hospice patient, relieved to meet the productivity metric of my hospice employer.
I’ve been a hospice chaplain for nearly a decade, which means I’ve seen people die. It seems that most people fight death, but there are some who accept it and take on the task of ending well, at least at some point. They are the ones who live with me in ghostly fashion, joining a growing cloud of witnesses along with the angel of death himself. At a certain threshold in the dying process, these folks start to talk about dying, not as something happening to them, but as something they are doing, just like breathing. The timing of this threshold seems as mysterious as life itself and not everyone seems to cross it. I imagine it can be terribly difficult to cross if you’ve spent your entire life climbing a proverbial or perennial ladder of advancement or just living your current life for a hypothetical future that doesn’t include death until it arrives.
I’ve been a hospice chaplain for nearly a decade, which means I’ve seen people die. It seems that most people fight death, but there are some who accept it and take on the task of ending well.
After I’ve worked in hospice in one place for enough time, I start to notice that wherever I go I see reminders of the dead. I drive by a neighbourhood and remember a person who lived and died there, someone I listened to, learned from and helped die. It’s odd to live in a place with this kind of awareness because it’s not the awareness your friends have of the same place. Your awareness of things is different after seeing so much death up close. After death, the only way you can experience a place as you used to know it is through memory. Since memory is always something that exists in the present moment, even memory does not fully capture the place you once knew as you knew it. Places are changed forever after loss. My way of knowing a place and being in a place comes full circle as reminders of the dead increase with time. It is sometimes sad, never debilitating, always humbling.
I’ve worked for hospices in Kentucky and Arizona, but such a vocation in the infamous Silicon Valley of California feels subversive to me in its own unique way. Day after day I help people die in the shadows of tech companies known all over the world for innovation, success, wealth and promises of a brighter future. I’m amused by this and also unsettled, for as I write these words the air outside is fuzzy and orange from fires that have burned thousands of acres on every side of this valley. There are ashes where golden brown rolling hills once glowed and on the floors of forests boasting majestic redwood trees. Watching this place burn and learning my way around in it through encounters with death, it feels absurd to watch people press onward as if nothing has changed or is changing.
The ashy sky was so thick recently that I was able to snap a direct photo of the sun with my iPhone. The sun was eerily dim as it rose over the gated headquarters of eBay, empty because of the pandemic except for a few private guards in logoed uniforms and the eyes of security cameras. My amusement and unsettledness is accompanied by the daily burdens of commodification and the arbitrary measures of productivity, even in hospice care, as people chase after fake wealth while real wealth is destroyed. All this is happening in a valley where indigenous people lived for thousands of years without destroying it; a valley that was formerly known as ‘The Valley of the Heart’s Delight’ because of its now-vanished apricot orchards.
Subversion through a vocation with death in Silicon Valley, however, feels somewhat rewarding to me, or at least purposeful while this place burns. It is a way for me to participate in the life of this place with some sense of integrity and dignity. This is especially true in those moments when I feel lost or uprooted because I am a first-generation Californian with no ancestral bones in this ground. Subversion is my way of being here, the way my landless Appalachian forebears and their European immigrant forebears have left a legacy that teaches me how to be anywhere – like a native stranger. My vocation subtly unsettles the dominant cultural assumptions in this place that people might not think of as assumptions at all.
When future-looking enthusiasts in Silicon Valley arrive near death after years of start-up growth, technological innovations, or just short-sighted hope, they can find me working there already, waiting for them. If it’s not too presumptuous, I like to think I’m ahead of them, envisioning a future that the culture here has not prepared them for, the only certain future, one that will come regardless of whether we end up with flying taxis or smart grids or a colony on Mars.
Yet as every seasoned hospice chaplain knows, you cannot force anyone over the threshold from getting here to being here in this place of death. You cannot coerce anyone to accept the reality of loss happening all around this place or the grief that infuses it. Rather, you work subversively and you wait graciously and hospitably. You receive a person after he or she has scaled the peaks and traversed the universe in search of everlasting life or massive wealth accumulation and has finally come down to acknowledge that the end of all things is near. It is only then that one might be ready to weave a different story of love and loss; life and death; parable, myth or metaphor. In other words, to learn an old language of grief, which is the chief work of an old world.
I suspect the man at the intersection lives in the present world to the extent that he can find hope for a future. For those of us in stopped machines, that future is when the light finally turns green and we are free to travel onward. In the case of the man with the sign, that future is a heaven not of this Earth at all. Like people who honk their horns as soon as the light turns green, or scientists who urge us to leave Earth for Mars, the man with the sign feels anxious and compelled to warn people that they had better do something quickly, always quickly, before time runs out and it’s too late – before the light turns red and the machines stop.
The man with the sign feels anxious and compelled to warn people that they had better do something quickly, before time runs out and it’s too late – before the light turns red and the machines stop.
Thankfully, there are better ways to live with the realisation that the end of all things is near. One of those ways is by the awareness that the end of each thing is already present in its beginning. This implies, as a start, that we recognise and honour death in every birth, the end in every beginning – not to make us depressed, but to help us remember who we are in any place on Earth, to nurture wisdom and humility. We might also retrieve the old idea of vocation and practice it subversively in a culture where education is generally just preparation to make money in a hypothetical future. We might learn to practice vocations that help us live in the present, but also in relationship with our dying places and people with integrity and dignity.
We might evoke animistic experiences of the world. For example, even when we are not aware that death and grief are present, they are present ghosts. They are all around us and eventually we meet them. Like fish or trees, they do not need our conscious awareness to live of their own accord. We simply become aware of them when they are rustled, stirred or evoked. This might happen by a need to adjust to a new reality or simply by a smell or song that tunes our physical senses to the rhythms of a lost life or love. We might say this is animistic because it gives death and grief agency all their own. We stop ignoring them or trying to overcome them and we learn ways to hear them and live in reciprocity with them. They become faithful companions.
As a former Bible sign holder, I saw something of myself in the man at the intersection. When I stood in his shoes, my life had a baseline of anxiety, not just because his god was such a hard taskmaster for me, but because I couldn’t let anything end, let life and death be the cycles they are. I could not allow the end of all things as I knew them because I thought that meant the end of all things categorically or totally. I wish that man well. Some will praise his commitment; others will see his work as foolishness. No matter, as wisdom and humility remain available to anyone who can be open to them. I continue to receive them while I visit patients in this paved-over valley of the heart’s delight.
IMAGE: Controlled Burn by Wild Conspiracy
Photograph taken in rubble along Lake Street in the aftermath of the people’s uprisings in response to the police murder of George Floyd on Dahkóta land, currently known as Minneapolis, USA. Elk antlers constructed from paper by Elle Thoni, performer/animator Chasya Hill, and photographer Maxwell Collyard, collaborating under the banner of Wild Conspiracy. Elk, formerly driven to regional extinction by white settlers, are now making a slow return to Minnesota.
Wild Conspiracy creates queer ensemble performance for rewilding our collective imagination amidst collapse. We create on and with Dahkóta land in the Upper Mississippi River watershed of so-called Minneapolis, MN, USA. To view more of this photo series and listen to Saber, MN, a companion audio play, visit wildconspiracy.org/sabermn
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