As you can probably guess from a lot of the titles in my blog space, I like to ponder life’s bigger issues and what could be bigger than its end point? It’s a subject which I have examined in numerous ways, but I was drawn to it again recently based on an observation of my neighborhood where I have lived for the last two decades or more.
I’m a regular dog walker so I am quite familiar with the space mapped out by my daily rotations. It’s a place that was essentially settled in the 1950s and onwards and its character is changing as established wooded areas are cleared for new housing and older properties and their residents fade into disrepair. You could become blind to the more subtle changes since you are a resident of the fish tank yourself but it’s a good practice to sense it more keenly since it is yours to sense more than any other environment.
You experience your world through all your senses and one of the most significant, and perhaps most neglected is sound. When I got here, spring in my neighborhood was a riot of birdsong but happily spared for the most part, the thrum of backyard barbecues and traffic thanks to an older settled population. For the most part though, now that soundscape is shifting as nature, though still present, is pushed aside for new build and the old give way to the young. In my neighborhood though, particularly in winter, silence reigns supreme.
I was reminded of this change when an old neighbor, who admittedly I did not know, died a year ago. He was already a widower and lived alone in his brick built bungalow. I never saw anyone visiting him. I would observe him at times standing in his yard feeding the local blackbirds from his hand and chatting outside his house with a friend from across the street, often it seemed for hours.
In late 2019 a storm had brought down a tree on his roof and he had contracted workers to do the repair — descriptive of the best laid plans since a little after Christmas in 2020 he fell ill, went to hospital and never returned, dying from an advanced metastasized cancer. Thereafter, the house stood still and mute.
I walked past it almost daily sensing its emptiness. Empty houses send out strong signals in a space for the living — mostly through their silence. Even the birds seemed to avoid the place. Curiously, shortly after the old man’s death, a larger branch of a tree in the front of his house had snapped but not disconnected reaching to the ground like a forlorn messenger to all those who walked past.
Like many older properties, it was destined to give way to new build instead of preserving its settled status. In recent days, a large noisy digger arrived replete with a large stainless steel claw and with steady violence has reduced the house to piles of brick, twisted metal, and wood. Soon it will be erased completely in the same manner as its owner, and in its place, multiple houses will spring up that will start their journeys with new residents and all the content of their lives.
It’s one thing for a person to die, but for the house he undoubtedly lived a good part of his life in to be deleted, another. We like to think that there is permanence in bricks and mortar, and certainly most houses outlive their owners, but that level of destruction brings its own sense of finality.
We invest so much of ourselves in the concept of our living spaces that it feels like the final insult to remove that space if there is nobody to vouch for it, or to put their own mark on an old house and breathe life back into it.
By summertime, undoubtedly the house builders will have left and new residents will make their presence felt in the space occupied finally by one old sick man. Further up the road, another house has yielded to developers and so it goes. Change is inevitable and must be accepted. In some ways, what is happening in my neighborhood is a modern day version of archaeology, only much more efficient at removing any traces of what went before.
We’re all just passing through so it’s folly to think that we should invest so much in permanence when there is none. Years quickly flow into decades into centuries and we with them. The neighborhood where I live was under the sea after the last Ice Age receded and it’s not so fanciful to think that even a century from now, it could be again, all the lives and character of this place submerged and erased.
People, I am assured fear mortality, not simply because they cannot fathom not being, but also because of the erasure of their identity, of their ego. In my previous blog I also explored the concept of identity through the stories we gather around ourselves and our obsessive need to identify through our work.
Lately I have come to reflect upon all the people who are willing to risk erasure for a better life in the West — some are surely economic migrants, but the majority are fleeing from situations we on the other side of the fortress fence can only imagine in nightmares. It’s one thing to fall into the lazy habit of not seeing these as people being like us. Both economic migrants and refugees are invested in the future, hoping for a fulfilled life, fearing death.
I was particularly disturbed by the recent story of 27 migrants who drowned in the icy waters of the British Channel, paying the equivalent of a mortgage in their poverty to board a flimsy inflatable dinghy at gunpoint. Pictures of some of the victims in life, one a pregnant woman, another a young woman hoping to meet her fiancé already in England emphasized the needless and senseless deaths of these people in the bleak waters of the Channel.
So many things in this life just don’t add up and death seems to be the final insult for many perplexed by its inconsistencies. As we approach 2022 with so many economic, social, and environmental unknowns and the turning of another cog towards dystopia, does it offer any comfort that these death throes are the start of something new?
Coming back to my philosophical lodestar Marshall McLuhan, I tend to agree with him that we can never be fully fathom what’s ahead since are viewing our present through a rear view mirror and ironically are ‘marching backwards into the future’.
Nevertheless, McLuhan was convinced also that against the weight of our history, there was something meaningful in being mortal and that collectively we are experiencing a major reworking of what it is to be human:
‘I have a deep and abiding belief in man’s potential to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth.’
Pain and loss are inevitable consequences of being human. but we must contextualize them in the process of change. Life is a terminal condition, most assuredly, but ironically, it is our mortality, our impermanence that actually defines us. Reflect on that every day, and whatever your life situation, give thanks for the brief privilege of being alive.