Closure, Of A Sort

Posted on October 24th, 2021 in Personal | No Comments »

Recently I found myself alone with a deceased person, in their house. The occasion was the loss of a close family member, someone I had grown up with. They passed away suddenly and, for reasons I won’t go into here, I ended up spending nearly 24 hours at their home with their cremated remains. It was somewhat surreal. First, I arrived at their house in the dead of night after a long transatlantic flight and had to almost break into their house when I found I only had one of the two keys needed for the front door. As luck would have it, the side door into the garage was unlocked and then the door into the house only had a single lock – the key I had.

So I spent the night alone and would remain so until nearly midnight of the following day – almost a full 24 hours with only memories and ashes for company.

I should explain that once upon a time, I also lived in that house, along with other family members, all of whom have now passed away. I was the sole survivor, even though I was not the youngest (the recently departed was). Every room, every drawer held a memory of a much happier time, when we were all together and looking towards the future. Now I stood in the middle of a building with no more tomorrows for anyone other than myself.

It was a difficult thing, and felt like I was invading their privacy by going through closets and opening bedroom drawers. I found many things that surprised me, and would have to remind myself that the owners were all dead and gone; I had every right, and indeed a need to go through their most intimate keepsakes. Other family members had been there before me and started to sort through paperwork, etc., so the house was disheveled. But a great many personal items were untouched and had been for some time – a watch on a nightstand, a razor still in place, a toothbrush, worn from use. Despite the untidiness, it felt like the former occupants could come back at any time and resume their lives, even though I knew that was never going to happen.

The experience left me sad, and tears were frequent. I miss them all terribly and always will. But it was also a transformative experience. I began to see this house as a place where time had stopped at the moment of the last death. In many ways, the person whose passing had brought me back to this place had refused to accept the loss of the rest of the family and tried to preserve the place as a shrine or a museum to their memory. Deep in my heart I felt the same way and understood the feeling. I too wished to keep it all as it was, as I remembered it from when I lived there. But the more I looked into drawers and cabinets, the more I examined the piles of receipts and small objects d’art, the more I came to realize I could not do that. I had no desire to be the custodian of dusty relics of days past. I was alive and had my own path to follow.

Many of the objects I found scattered on endtables and countertops were things like nail clippers or bottles of pills; remote controls or key fobs, etc. Items that all of us have in our own homes. And these are the things we use as we live our lives. But when we are gone, these items serve no further purpose, other than as remnants of our need to keep moving forward in time. Now they had no use, and no function other than as clutter. The entire house and all of its contents were static, unchanging and waiting for a future that had ceased to be.

I knew then that I could not keep things as they were. It was time to let it go, all of it. I would take some items as mementos, such as photo albums or small keepsakes, but the rest would have to be sold, donated or thrown away. It pains me to think that someone’s memories or personal treasures could wind up in the trash, but it will happen to almost everything all of us own someday. I can’t burden my descendants with the care of things that belonged to people they’ll never know. And that includes the house itself. For decades, it was a home, a happy place, a refuge for us from the trials of life. Somewhere to return to, someplace to entertain visitors or escape from the world. Now it was just a house, a structure falling into disrepair. It needs to go to a new family who will turn it into a home once again. My heart will always be there, but with the passing of the last inhabitant, it’s time to let it go, as it once came to us.

And then there were the cremains. I admit that my morbid curiosity got the better of me. If I didn’t look, I’d wonder for the rest of my life about it. The ashes were placed with no ceremony upon the TV stand, in a rather well-made cloth bag from the funeral home. I took it into the kitchen and placed it on the counter. Inside was a cardboard box with an identifying card naming the deceased. Taking the box out and opening it, I found a clear plastic bag closed with a golden tag. The remains were clearly visible through the thick plastic. Lifting it out, I was surprised at the heft. I had never seen cremated human bones in person before and marveled at the view. The ashes themselves were a light colour, slightly tan with a light pink appearance. No sign of burning or singeing anywhere, with sizes from grains of sand up to small rough-edged granules. It was hard to believe this was a person I had known nearly all my life and had spoken to only a few months previously. Now there they were, dead; burnt, crushed and ground into a near-powder, bagged and tagged, ready to be placed in the urn (which was in a box on the dining room table). I poked the bag and wondered what part of the body this or that large particle of bone once was.

Eventually I put the bag back into the box, the box back into the cloth bag and returned it to the TV stand as I had found it. I would take it out again later and look once more, as well as take a few photographs. But often as I would wander around the house, I would also lovingly pat the bag and speak to it. Several days later I would be back, possibly for the last time, and leave flowers next to the bag, in the deceased’s favourite colour (the same colour as the urn). I also visited the cemetery where the ashes would ultimately be interred, with the other former occupants of the house.

I don’t regret looking; it can’t be any more odd than seeing the body of a loved one at a viewing while they lie in repose in a casket. I mourned and will feel the pain of loss for some time to come. As everyone who has lost someone will know, the pain never really goes away; you just keep going on with it as a part of you. It’s all that can be done. You cannot live in the past. As I mentioned previously, you would become the curator of a museum of memories. The family I grew up with is gone; I have a new family now and share my life with them.

Relating my experiences to the people around me, the word “closure” came up over and over again. I don’t know if I really have a sense of it. A life interrupted feels unfinished; it’s hard to button that up and put it away in the mind. Although I can say I did make my peace with some aspects of it, such as coming to terms with giving up the house, and the cold reality of seeing a loved one as really and truly dead. I definitely turned a page (if not a chapter) in my life. But is that “closure”? It’s uncertain; perhaps in the long run it will turn out to be just that. But for now, I know I am still grieving over the loss of not only a close relative, but a huge part of my own life, also gone forever.

Since my return, I’ve thought a lot about that day, that entire trip. I can recall the smell of the house, the silence, the feeling of emptiness in rooms full of ‘things’. And the memories, everywhere. It was the busiest empty space I’ve ever known. I have deep existential dread about my own demise and leaving so much behind. It makes me look at my own collection of nail files or scribbled notes and wonder about the day when someone will have to decide what to keep and what to throw away. I wonder if they will also find closure, of a sort. I hope so. I hope I do, too.

The End and Beginning of Time

Posted on November 13th, 2018 in Metaphysics | No Comments »

The first 13.7 billion years went by in literally a flash. The Big Bang, the formation of the Sun and Earth, the stirrings of life, dinosaurs, cavemen, the pyramids, the Crusades, WWII; it all happened instantaneously. The first things I remember experiencing were short moments, with no real recollection of any gaps in between. Memories strung like pearls on threads without interconnecting. It all seems like centuries ago now. It wasn’t until I was about five years old that things began to link up in a way they had not previously. I became aware without being aware that time was moving very slowly.

Minutes and seconds would pass then as they do now, but hours, days, weeks, months, years – they all took the longest time to move through their now familiar rhythms. As a boy I would play for ages. Go to school for ages. The days were nearly eternal, Summer months like eons. Christmas would come and the house would be transformed into a gaudy delight of brightness and colour; the tree would go up, presents would appear and it would go on and on and on until I couldn’t stand it any more. When it was finally done, it would be forever before it would happen again. After periods of time so long I couldn’t name them, it would be Summer again, and the days would drift lazily by once more.

As I learned more and more about events that took place before my own birth, it would seem to me that time raced forward in a gigantic rush, like a runaway train, barrelling down through millennia until it reached me. My existence was somehow enough of an event that time itself would crash headfirst into it and like the most unimaginable collision, suddenly stop dead in its tracks. It was only in the aftermath of this incomprehensible meeting of the most unstoppable force and the most immovable object that the great train of time began to slowly shuffle forth one more. Tamed and humbled, the once raging river of eternity was reduced to a mere trickle.

But what I failed to appreciate was that time had momentum on its side.

Over the years of my life, I became aware that my power to contain time itself would weaken. Eventually I noticed that the days were now not quite so long as in my youth; Suddenly it would be Monday or Saturday again. Was it really a week ago? Not just a few days? What happened to my long, glorious Summers? A few weeks and now the cold of Winter is biting already? It is Christmas again? I look back in alarm at the years that have literally slipped away from my grasp. Where did that decade go? What have I done? Where am I now? I recall events that seem to have happened only a few years ago, and find it stupefying that it’s been twenty years or more. What? My own childhood now seems to have almost passed into myth. But I was there, dammit!

People I knew and loved are now dead and gone. I know it will only get worse. The laughter of once close companions is replaced by quiet. The days are a blur now. I get up, and suddenly it’s dark again and time for bed. Time is exacting its cruel revenge upon me for holding it at bay for so long. The scales are continuing to tip in its favour. Eventually I will lose completely. My death will be the last remaining check on its inexorable progress and once I am gone, it will resume its breakneck pace. Much like the moment before I was born, the moment after my passing will cause not just billions, but trillions of years to fly by in the briefest of intervals. An eternity may pass in the merest fraction of a second. The death of the Sun and Earth, the collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda, even the heat death of the entire Universe and the decay of the proton will arrive almost simultaneously with the end of my life. Time will be freed from the shackles placed upon it by me and will run riot until the passage of it in itself becomes a meaningless concept.

The greatest frustration is that just as before, I will not be aware of it all. I wish that after this cosmic blink of the eyelid, I would somehow have knowledge of what had gone before, but I don’t have any real hope I will. It will have to be enough to know now that when my grip on time is finally loosened, all that is to come will flow by just as fast as what had flown before. And for a small interval between two great voids, I alone had the power to tame that mighty torrent, if only for a while.

Moving Closer To The Edge

Posted on October 20th, 2012 in Religion | No Comments »

For many years I have considered myself an agnostic. While I had little or no doubt that religion is a waste of time, I still carried around a nagging ‘possible’ belief in God. But I couldn’t anthropomorphize ‘him’ as an individual. I focused on the idea of ‘All That Is’ from the Seth books by Jane Roberts. Here, God is seen as a gestalt of everything that exists. Energy is God and Energy is Consciousness, no matter how inert something appeared to be. Even rocks had a rudimentary awareness since they possessed energy. As for an afterlife, I grew to embrace the idea that there is either nothing, or something far beyond what most people would conceive of. Here again, the Jane Roberts/Seth material seemed to offer the best potential.

But there were flaws in this¬† worldview that I was never comfortable with.¬† The concept of Atlantis for example, and how the natives would use sound waves to move large rocks around. There’s clearly no evidence for any of this, and while I found much to admire, details like this always made me squirm in my seat. But for a long while I was content to stick with it in lieu of anything better. Eventually however, I stumbled upon the British Humanist Association. It was a revelation to find an organization with like-minded individuals who had deep-seated reservations about God. I quickly joined the BHA as a member, and I’m proud to be associated with it. I have since taken part in many letter-writing campaigns, to add my voice to the calls for a more secular society.

Also, I have a child, and living in a country without a separation between church and state, I intensely disliked having my child coming home from school singing about how ‘God is great’.

These experiences led to me buying and reading Richard Dawkin’s bestselling book The God Delusion. I found this to be a polarizing experience, and while there are parts of the book that I think are somewhat obtuse, it began a process of ‘politicizing’ me in regards to religious belief. I turned to YouTube for videos of Dawkins engaging with believers. This led to my introduction to Christopher Hitchens, and his in-your-face method of slamming those who insist of pushing their faith on other people. Some who don’t like this call it new atheism. My feeling is that after all these years of having Christian values pushed on me (and others), it’s time we stood up and starting fighting back (in a peaceful method – religious warfare has an extremely bloody history, and I don’t intend on contributing to the carnage).

This in turn, led to the Austin, Texas cable show The Atheist Experience:

And the excellent series of videos from AronRa regarding the nonsense of creationism:

What these videos (and others) do is help show and explain the arguments regarding atheism and the claims used by those who espouse God as the creator of the Universe. It’s also a great comfort to know that other people think along similar lines to myself. On a recent trip back to my hometown (and country), I was dismayed to see the strident jingoism and holy fervor on evidence throughout the media, as well as made concrete (literally) by the number of churches lining the boulevards. It was all very depressing. The work of the Atheist Experience and AronRa helps balance the scales back towards reason and logic.

So where am I now? I’m still learning, still absorbing. I feel less inclined to stay silent, and more and more able to state my position if pressed. I am encouraged to stand up for my lack of belief. I don’t have any trouble stating that I am a Humanist. Am I able to say that I am an atheist? My viewpoint certainly is in line with atheism, but I’m still not quite ready to cross that Rubicon, at least in my mind, and declare myself one. At least not yet. I certainly do not believe in religion, and most emphatically not organized religion. I believe there is no convincing proof of God’s existence. Could God exist in a method that we have not been able to ascertain? Obviously I can’t answer that. It’s certainly a possibility, but I concede that the window on that possibility is getting smaller all the time.

I have moved closer to the edge of atheism, but am I caught in a Zeno-like paradox, never quite able to get all the way there? Maybe applying a label to myself isn’t that important. Rejecting a worldview is a big step, and one not to be taken lightly, for whatever reason. In my case it means having to admit that there really is no afterlife; my loved ones are gone forever, and one day I too will simply cease to exist. It’s tough to just give all that up, but if that’s the price for accepting reality over superstition, then it has to be. Perhaps I just need more time to dress myself up in the garb of an atheist, and eventually I’ll feel comfortable in those clothes. I know in my heart that I’m nearly there now. Maybe I’ve been closer than I would have admitted all along. Maybe resolving my paradox means going over that edge instead of just drawing nearer. It’s scary, but also liberating at the same time.

I’m almost an atheist. Almost.

The Everyday Miracle of Consciousness

Posted on March 26th, 2008 in Metaphysics, Religion | No Comments »

First, I know it’s been awhile since the last post. A lot has changed, hasn’t it? I still hope Hilary wins; A ‘President Obama’ would be another Jimmy Carter at best. But I digress…

I was watching a show the other night about memory, these leading neurospecialists all admitted that even now, nobody is quite sure how memories are formed or stored in the brain. We know that memories (as well as all mental processes) are carried between neurons as electrochemical exchanges from cell to cell. But how does that translate into remembering an event I experienced thirty or forty years ago? What happens in my brain that makes me relive a time long ago in the past? It is nothing short of a miracle.

As regular readers of this blog (if any!) will no doubt be aware, I’m no fan of organized religion; it’s a sheer drain on the species that we’ve long ago outgrown. However, this does not mean I’m an anti-spiritual person. I don’t think I am. I just object to the layers of dogma and nit-picking that have wound up as seemingly essential baggage on the train of every religious belief. But, I feel neuroscientists are trying to work from a ‘bottom-up’ position. What if instead, consciousness worked as a top-down experience?

Some people might be tempted to call this a ‘soul’, but that word has connections that I’d just as soon reject out of hand. I’ll stick (for now), with a top-down approach. The funny thing about consciousness is that we take it for granted to such a degree, we often fail to appreciate how amazing a thing it is, stuck there in our skulls as we walk around. No other species on the planet has anything like the cognitive skills we use every day without (if you’ll pardon the pun) a moment’s thought. And why have we developed these skills? We seem wildly overdeveloped for survival on the grasslands of Africa. Billions of us exist with scant notice of the fact that we do exist; and when we think about it at all, it strikes many as perfectly obvious that we should exist. But should we? Why? And why as such intelligent creatures that we are capable of progressing beyond our own basic physical needs? We can contemplate the distant past, the far-flung future, the subtle nuances of complex emotional interactions, to say nothing of music or art or even symbolism, language, writing, math and a host of other cerebral gymnastics that leaves our ape cousins and even the dolphins far behind.

Consciousness, our consciousness, is not so ordinary that it should escape our notice. Instead it’s the rarest, most precious commodity in the known universe. We are self-aware, and yet with all our ability, we still can’t even describe our own knowing. It does not seem possible that the jelly between our ears can reproduce the moment of our first kiss, or the loss of a loved one, or eating a really good sandwich. But it does, and all the time. I have to believe that somehow we are generating the chemicals and electrical impulses, but they are the footprints, not the foot, of our thought. It’s as if we study the hammers of a piano and wonder how they can organize themselves into the music of Bach. The point is well and truly missed.

Happily, I can contemplate this without the need for Jesus, the Prophet, Buddha or any other divine messenger. What if we die and discover that we have been our own gods all along? I know, there’s no proof, but nobody can explain how my brain can let me retrace a long-ago summer’s day, when the world seemed perfect and eternal. My own personal miracle.

An I for an I

Posted on June 12th, 2007 in Metaphysics | No Comments »

Some years ago, I was driving to work when I had an epiphany. I suddenly saw myself as I was – an American white male, living in the latter half of the twentieth century. Good health, somewhat affluent, in short, nearly the cream of the crop as far as life experience gets. And the question that bubbled up in my mind was… why?

Why was I not born as a poor African, sick and starved in some rain-forsaken dust bowl? Or an oppressed peasant deep in the backwoods of some underdeveloped Asian country? Or one of a myriad of other unpleasant and probably short-lived lives around the globe? How and why did I end up so high the ladder of desirable conditions, suspended between two eternities? I remember being really shaken by the cosmic roll of the dice that put my consciousness in such a ‘privileged’ place. The population of the world was probably close to four billion when I was born, and if you were to line up everyone alive at that time by how well off they were, I would have been well ahead of most; certainly two-thirds of humanity, if not five-sixth.

Twenty years later, I still don’t have an answer to this question. I still wonder why I’m me, and not already dead of malaria or malnutrition or infection, or barely clinging to my miserable life. I’m saying this not to brag about how wonderful I am, or how well-deserving I’ve been of my status as a White American Male (WAM), but more about how really shocked I was when it came to my realization that it could have so easily have been very different. Of course, the fact my own personal consciousness appeared at all is another amazing thing, considering I could have been born in the Stone Age, or the 13th century. But that’s just another small sub-facet of the same question: Why am I me, and not someone or someplace else? Why? It’s a question that still shakes me to the core; If you think about it hard enough, it should shake you as well.

Thought Experiment

Posted on April 20th, 2007 in Comedy, Metaphysics | No Comments »

If nothing else, a blog is a handy way to empty your mind of stuff that’s been pasted to the inside of your brain for some time. This is something that’s rattled around in my skull for years. A good example of what I get up to when I’m not doing anything else.

Imagine for the sake of argument that everyone has a built-in digital display over their heads. Assume it’s a part of nature that we evolved with, just like five fingers and two ears. The display measures the difference between physical time and the time in our heads. You know how you get impatient when you sit at a red light that seems to take forever to change? When it turns green, what do you do? Usually you then try to rush to catch up to where you think you should have been, had the light changed sooner. It’s this difference between where you are vs. where you think you should be that the display measures.

For most people the display would nearly always be lagging behind to some degree. It seems we’re always in a hurry, or always behind where we should be. As we run late, the display would provide proof of this. Some people, like obsessive-compulsives, would be manic to make sure their display was as close to ‘proper’ time as possible. A few would even be ahead of where they should be. Lucky bastards. Remember, I’m asking you to assume that this is a normal part of human physiology; it wouldn’t even bear much comment, unless someone was seriously ahead or behind.

Got that? If so, then the thought experiment itself is much simpler to describe:

What (if anything) would Frankenstein’s display read?