Alive inside of a memory

24 December 2018

I have been trying to think of an appropriate Christmas-themed blog post but I hadn't had any luck until I received Josh Radnor's latest Museletter in my inbox. You may know him as an actor in the TV series Rise, or from writing, directing, and starring in indies Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts, or as a Broadway actor, or as a musician. But to me and a lot of other people, Josh Radnor is best known as portraying Ted Mosby in my favorite TV show How I Met Your Mother. I have always liked his tweets and have always found his Museletters insightful. This latest one, with the same title as this blog post, struck a nerve and I thought I should share a long excerpt with you.

Aging is equal parts bitter and sweet. You want kids to grow up, surely, for their voices to change and their clothes to get too small. It's evidence of health, of nature following its proper course. But its also evidence of loss: loss of youth, loss of innocence. There’s just something undeniably sad about the passage of time.

Though I've never done it myself there's apparently a Buddhist meditation centered on death, on doing a deep dive into your own impermanence. Rather than crippling us with fear, the meditation is designed to bring death out from the shadows and us more deeply into the present. We think we’re cheating death somehow by banishing it to the back of our minds, but denying death tends to close us off, to make us more frightened and overly-cautious. I can’t help but think we’d be healthier as a society if we weren’t so death-denying, if we didn’t hide away our elders and engage in quite so much youth worship. Keeping death at the front of our minds can liberate us to be more acutely alive.

Bruce Springsteen had a line in his Broadway show (which I was fortunate enough to catch in the last week of its run, but you can watch it on Netflix which I highly recommend you do, it’s terrific) where he said something about ‘awakening from the youthful dream of immortality.’ For me it happened when I hit forty. I couldn’t conceive of how I got there but there I was. And then I had some friends who died very suddenly these last few years and this seemingly endless thing began to feel very finite indeed.

Because here’s the truth of it: In the grand scope of universal cosmic time, eighty, ninety years is the snap of a finger. We’re here for just a moment, truly. I have that feeling sometimes on vacations. Like at the start of the vacation you can already sense its ending. The end is baked into the experience. That’s what life is starting to feel like to me. Endings, everywhere I turn. And that awareness brings with it a necessary reckoning: What am I to do with the time I have here? How best to fill my days?

We humans are the only creatures that live with an awareness of our own mortality. Like with all things that knowledge can either liberate or imprison us. That night at Jeff and Melissa’s I felt strangely liberated. It began in earnest when my sister Melanie and I had a brief chat by the fireplace about our parent’s dying one day and us having to go through their house and sift through the minutiae of their lives. We got instantly sad and cut off the talk quickly, but right afterwards this thought descended and wouldn't let go of me:

My parents aren’t going to be here one day.
My parents are going to die.

Now this might seem a morbid thought to have invaded an otherwise festive Thanksgiving. But instead of it being a downer, it brought on a strange kind of euphoria. I began studying the contours of my dad’s face and listening to the melody of my mom’s laughter, features of their form and presence that will one day be merely memory. But for that night, I knew it. They're in excellent health, my parents, but one day - hopefully not for many years - they will be gone. I felt their absence acutely while simultaneously being freed up to enjoy their presence, focusing intensely on all that I loved about their human form so that I’d be able to recall it vividly years from now.

For one night, it felt like I was dropped inside of a dying world, invited into some scene from long ago, a kind of reverse déjà vu. I was able to partially mourn my parents’ deaths while they were still alive, certain that the memory of that evening would be with me always. It felt like a true gift, some sort of divine alarm blaring “This is happening. You are all together. It won’t always be this way. Be here. Drink it in. Love more courageously.”

I think we feel regret when we sense we weren’t as present with people during an experience as we know we could have been. I also think it has something to do with love and gratitude unexpressed. I don’t know why it’s so hard to tell the people we love that we love them, that we forgive them, that we hope they forgive us. That we are grateful.

All I know is that I was given this gift.
To be alive inside of a memory.
It was truly odd and terribly sad.
And also wonderful.
A lot like life.

There's a quote that goes, "At some point in your childhood, you and your friends went outside to play together for the last time, and none of you knew it." I didn't know that our last Christmas with my Uncle Karl was the last Christmas we would ever have with him. Looking back, I wonder if I would prefer knowing. I guess not. But every day I live with the regret that I should have embraced him one last time.

Listened to his stories one last time.

Said goodbye one last time.

The sharp pain evolves into a dull ache, resurfacing when particular memories revisit, but grief never really goes away. There's really nothing I can do about it now, but I can move forward with the awareness that whatever I do or whoever I am with, I should make an effort to be present.

My boyfriend and I were mulling over what a year this year has been so far. What a year, this year.

I am grateful, and I wish you a very Merry Christmas.

To subscribe to Josh Radnor's Museletters, click here. Go here to read his past entries. Photo in this blog post was taken by myself using a Huawei P20 Pro.

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